Sixty a day inspire more plays than Shakespeare

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The Independent Online
John Cargill Thompson, a 60-cigarettes-a-day and 60-plays-a-year man, is now Britain's most prolific playwright. His latest work, the 52nd to be performed, puts him above Shakespeare (37) and Alan Ayckbourn (51), yet few theatregoers have even heard of him.

In his tiny flat in central London, surrounded by empty whisky bottles and overflowing ashtrays, the endearingly gruff Glaswegian spends his days writing and rewriting drafts in pen and ink. "Plays aren't written, they are rewritten. Writing everything out in longhand, you make the words your own," he said.

His home is a haven of eccentricity. The kitchen is a Bohemian nightmare where dirty dishes, bottles of whisky and gin, and tubes of toothpaste vie for space. The bedroom is dominated by a giant candelabra.

The production of his 52nd play to be performed, Soul Doubt, at the New End Theatre in Hampstead, north London, caused a footnote in the Stage, the weekly journal of the theatrical profession which announced that he had overtaken Shakespeare and Ayckbourn.

Unlike Shakespeare and Ayckbourn, Cargill Thompson not only writes the stuff, he also sells it - badgering theatregoers in theatre foyers into buying 3,000 of his manuscripts so far.

Playwright solidarity counts for little with him. "I really can't be bothered with those bastards who live off two plays - these so-called icons of drama. Sometimes I get resentful of the sort of part-time writers who get a literary reputation, when every single play they do is part of the same formula. I would frankly say that Pinter didn't fulfil what the early standard promised," he said.

Cargill Thompson's plays include humourous re-evaluations of legendary personages. He is currently working on one which has the goddess Juno being interviewed by Hello! magazine. Another about gay date- rape and one entitled Richard the Third For Windows give an indication of the range of his work. Or there is When The Rain Stops, a monologue by Mrs Noah: "Yes, I see that now, of course we should have talked it over, perhaps we should have involved the neighbours, formed a committee, organised it properly ... things could have been so much easier ... we could have all built arks, couldn't we..."

The plays are mainly performed in fringe theatres, never so far in the West End and are usually only an hour or so long. "I feel resentful of spending a whole evening looking at something else, particularly if it's crap. There's a place for an hour or hour-and-a-quarter show, and then it's only a part of the evening. That's how it was in the 18th century. I come back to dear old Aristotle. A play should be about a single thing if possible," he said.

Mr Thompson adamantly refuses to say how old he is. "A recent relationship ended because my partner's mother went on at her about the age gap."

Phil Gibby, chief reporter on the Stage, said last night: "He is now definitely number one in the league table. Considering he came to writing fairly late after teaching at drama school [his pupils included Julie Walters] it is remarkable how much he has achieved."

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