You make a grown man cry

Robert Hanks talks to the heart-string tugging playwright Lee Hall
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When Spoonface Steinberg was first broadcast on Radio 4 in January this year, the response was staggering: the BBC logged over 200 calls praising the play, demanding repeats, wanting to know if it was possible to buy it on tape. "I am a truck-driver," said one caller, keen to establish his manly credentials, "and I was in tears." There were reports of drivers pulling in at the side of the road, too moved to be safe in traffic. More than two months later the author, Lee Hall, is still getting letters.

On the phone from Newcastle, Hall is amazed: "It was a huge shock, because I was worried that people would think, `What's this, a kid talking about cancer for an hour?'... It's one of those things you can't legislate for."

For those who didn't hear it, Spoonface Steinberg was an hour-long monologue spoken by a seven-year-old autistic girl dying of cancer (an utterly unaffected performance by 10-year-old Becky Simpson). Spoonface is an idiot savant, able to multiply numbers instantly or tell you the day of the week of any date in history. She talks with a mixture of wisdom, innocence and stoicism about her impending death, her parents' fragile relationship, grand opera, Hasidic theology and a host of other subjects.

The degree of appreciation may have astonished Hall, but he must be getting used to astonishment. His first radio play, I Luv U Jimmy Spud, was, like Spoonface, an eccentric, intellectually eclectic and emotionally frank work, this time about a small boy coping with his father's cancer - the twist being that Jimmy is a trainee angel.

It won him an Alfred Bradley Bursary, a Richard Imison Award, the Sony Award for best radio play of 1996, and a commission to write three more plays. (All his plays so far have been commissioned by the producer Kate Rowland, who has been rewarded with promotion to head of radio drama for England.)

The four plays were broadcast through January under the general title God's Country. Whether the phrase refers to childhood, to death or to Hall's native Tyneside - themes common to all four plays - is open to question. "A little bit of all of them," Hall reckons. "I was always interested in this idea of Tyneside as a post-industrial place... when those heavy industries broke down, where that leaves us" - a theme that gained in weight when he lived abroad (these definitively Geordie plays were mostly written in Greenwich Village).

He was drawn to the idea of writing about children after working in youth theatres: "I was always fascinated by how, intellectually, the kids had such a grasp of the problems they were having." At their best, the plays have an emotional power foreign to radio drama; at their worst, they can verge on the mawkish.

That's not the case with Hall's other broadcast play, Gristle, the grim story of a soldier returning from Northern Ireland with his genitals blown off. (Hall contrasts it with the comparatively light tone of his work about children and terminal disease.) Gristle shows how unsentimental Hall can be; it also shows what you might not have guessed, how far his mould-breaking plays are informed by theatrical tradition. A version of Ernst Toller's play Hinkemann, which Hall first encountered when reading English at Cambridge, Gristle is now scheduled for performance at the Gate Theatre in London.

Meanwhile, his first TV screenplay is about to start shooting; a film is planned of Jimmy Spud; Spoonface Steinberg is to be released on cassette; and the God's Country scripts are to be published in book form. Truck- drivers everywhere should have their hankies ready.