My night with Reg Dwight

Nick Hornby has got a lot to answer for. The latest playwright to trump the life-affirming qualities of football takes ex-Watford manager Elton John as his inspiration. By Dominic Cavendish

As decisive moments in footballing history go, it's pretty uncontestable: the failure by Watford goalkeeper Steve Sherwood to collect the ball hoofed at him by Everton winger Trevor Steven during the 1984 FA Cup final, paving the way for a 2-0 defeat that marked the beginning of the end for the Hornets' days of First Division glory. The opening scene of Elton John's Glasses, a play by David Farr, shows Bill, a Watford fan who has never been the same since, slumped in an armchair watching the disaster unfurl on an endless VCR loop, nursing a grudge against Elton John, the club's then vice president, for wearing glasses so natty they dazzled Sherwood with sunlight at the critical juncture.

Like football matches, careers have their decisive moments. Future commentators may judge that the crucial turning-point for the talented playwright and director David Farr was the arrival of his snappy comedy in the West End on June 10, 1998 - after a UK tour riding on the crest of World Cup hysteria. The sight of Brian Conley's morose Bill standing in front of packed houses with his trousers round his ankles, blindfolded by a club scarf, embracing tarty Julie (played by Gabrielle Glaister, still known to millions as Patricia Farnham from Brookside), will have box-office managers gasping at his sheer commercial prowess. This, they will conclude, was the hour that put the title within Farr's grasp. The title of "the new Brian Rix", that is.

Would they be wrong? To anyone who has seen any of Farr's previous work, Elton John's Glasses comes as something of a shock. The 28-year-old departing artistic director of the Gate Theatre - that tiny, underfunded space above a Notting Hill pub dedicated to dusting down neglected European treasures - would seem to have traded in sophisticated continental gourmet for crowd- pleasing English nosh. The wunderkind, whose visual ingenuity earned him praise from the minute he showed up at the Gate, at the behest of Stephen Daldry after an award-winning Edinburgh Festival showing from his Cambridge University company Talking Tongues in 1991, could be said to have had an attack of the "Nick Hornbys".

The two brothers, whose awkward reunion underpins the play's action, are obsessed respectively with football and rock music. Many of the gags wouldn't sound out of place in Men Behaving Badly ("She's got legs like the A41 - they go all the way to Bushey"). And the audience files out to the flag-waving Elton classic "I'm Still Standing". As they say of a Saturday afternoon: "You wot?".

Fresh from Zagreb, where he has just opened an already acclaimed production of The Winter's Tale at the state-subsidised Drama Theatre, and conspicuously happy to be no longer worrying about where the next Gate paint pot is coming from, Farr darts a glance out of the front window of his flat, grins and scratches his straggly beard. He does this a lot, in the manner of a genial, yet slightly sceptical, student. "It is odd that this is going to get me more exposure than anything else I've done, and that it's my least obviously experimental, most deliberately populist work to date," he admits.

An ardent Manchester United fan, Farr baulks at the suggestion that he has simply penned a stage sitcom for the Loaded generation. "I hate the notion of lad culture. It was never intended simply for a football audience, and it's not really about football," he insists. "It's about depression, obsession, self-deception - all these kinds of states of mind - and I decided to come up with an image that somehow encapsulated them in the most absurd way possible." The image that he arrived at owes as much to good fortune as it does to inspiration. Elton John's Glasses is a rewrite of a much older play that he staged on the fringe in 1991, called Neville Southall's Washbag. "You can't accuse me of hopping on the footie bandwagon, because I got there first," he states baldly.

In that version, Bill was fixated by the goal that Norman Whiteside put past Neville Southall in the 1985 FA Cup, causing the goalie's washbag to explode at the back of the net. Farr was spurred to relocate the scenario to Watford when he was approached by Giles Croft, artistic director of the Palace Theatre, and asked to write something specifically for the people of the town. "It all fell into place. The only problem was that I didn't actually check to see whether Elton John was wearing glasses that day until after I'd finished the play. I was horrified to find that they were terribly, terribly small." He mimes Lennon-specs, laughs a loud laugh and gives his chin another delighted scratch. "We've had no complaints, though. Elton John told the local paper he was chuffed to bits."

Farr is satisfied that the glasses are not just a gimmick. Bill goes beserk when his long lost rock-singer brother Dan turns up with a musician in tow who's wearing similarly outsized pop star peepers - and forces him to stumble blindly around his barely furnished flat. On one level, it's creakingly old-fashioned farce (directed by farceur extraordinaire, Terry Johnson). On another, it's an intriguing metaphor for the myopic and abandoned state of the Middle Englander. Elton John's Glasses turns out to be a tentative union between two very different theatrical tastes: British social realism (Farr's heroes include Ken Loach and Mike Leigh), and the expressionistic mainland European drama which he squeezed into the Gate, from his debut production of Botho Strauss's Seven Doors to the Buchner season with which he concluded his three-year term as artistic director at the end of last year.

"I've got a strange interest in the minutiae of our urban and suburban existences," he explains. "When I first joined the Gate, I thought that European was best. But I've come back to the British tradition. I realised that the eye for detail goes way beyond superficial observation - it can have a metaphysical depth to it. This play is an attempt to write about people who aren't written about, that forgotten mass of people who aren't considered dramatic, who aren't rich enough to get middle-class plays written about them. They're dismissed as normal, but they're not. Life hasn't just passed them by, it's carried them in it wake."

There speaks the voice of the Guildford-born and raised; the son of a surveyor and teacher ("with a genetically important bit of German-Jewish ancestry"); the commuter-belt hick who got lost on his way to his interview at the Gate because he was expecting to see something akin to his local, municipal Yvonne Arnaud.

Apart from his work with Talking Tongues (which ended after university when co-founders Rachel Weisz and Sasha Hails went their separate ways, the former to Hollywood, the latter to drama school), Farr's writing has been characterised by a hunger for oblique experimentation that has sometimes left audiences and critics baffled. His first proper play, Removal, written at Cambridge, was, by his own admission, too esoteric for its own good. Max Klapper - A Life in Pictures, a play incorporating film and live action (and staged at the Electric Cinema in 1996), scattered clues as to the haunted life of a reclusive Forties Hollywood director that "didn't quite add up".

Elton John's Glasses bears closest resemblance to a play Farr wrote for the National Theatre Studio before he joined the Gate: Hove was a surreal account of a quaint English boarding house on the brink of demolition. "I didn't know how to end it," he says. "All the characters went and jumped in the sea."

Elton John's Glasses has a beginning, middle and end - and it could conceivably give Farr the financial remuneration he has long deserved. As a pointer to his future artistic career, however, it's wide open to interpretation. "I could go and write a sit-com, but I also want to go and direct Shakespeare in Poland. Is that so impossible?" Again, he scratches his beard to give himself a bit more time to weigh things up.

`Elton John's Glasses' opens at the Queen's Theatre, London W1 on 10 June Booking: 0171-494 5040

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