It's the Way He Tells Them; Forget Docudrama, Theatre Is about Storytelling, Says Owen McCafferty, Whose Latest Work Is an Affair of the Heart - and the Bottle

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OWEN McCafferty, winner of 2004's Evening Standard bursary for Most Promising Playwright, was born in Belfast. No shock there.

His accent announces the fact.

Scenes from the Big Picture, his 2003 epic for the National Theatre, depicts 24 hours in the life of that city.

Everything about him seems to confirm his identity as "Irish playwright".

Yet, and he almost sounds surprised at hearing himself say it, he spent his first 10 years in south London, growing up in suburban Mitcham. So much for preconceptions.

"Belfast was just the place we went for our holidays," McCafferty says, quiet irony in his voice. He has worried, doleful eyes and a constant look of preoccupation. "My parents moved here when I was a few months old. I was a London schoolboy through and through. We moved back in 1971, which was quite a culture shock. Everything was starting up, politically. It wasn't a good time to have an English accent. So I immediately lost it."

The workingmen's club in which we meet, a gloomy darts-anddrinking den in a Hammersmith backstreet, could almost be a McCafferty stage set, which to date include a seedy hotel pub, a burger bar, a rundown lodging house, a building site.

In fact, it's the favoured rehearsal space of Peter Gill, director of McCafferty's new play for the Donmar, an adaptation of JP Miller's Days of Wine and Roses, best known as a 1962 film starring Jack Lemmon.

In McCafferty's version, a young Belfast couple move to London in search of a new life. Donal, whose passion for his wife is matched only by his love of the fabled Irish racehorse Arkle, dreams of having his own bookie's shop.

Eventually optimism seeps away, overwhelmed by drink, poverty and despair.

It's set in the Sixties, the time McCafferty's parents were making that same journey. Is that coincidence?

"Only partly. Their lives didn't turn out like that at all, though my father was a bookie for a time. It seemed the right era. You'd have to change the addiction, crack not drink, and have a clinic and therapy to update it. But it's not about alcoholism. I don't want audiences to say, 'It's a Belfast play'.

It's not social commentary. I stay away from that. It's a love story about two people."

He is used to having is work described as "gritty" but sees his approach as poetic, drawing on imagination rather than research. "I know a little bit about their world but, really, it's way outside my experience.

"I had to push my thinking way further to get inside their heads. But I can't see the point of this docudrama reality type of thing where you do loads of research and amass lots of facts." He is too courteous to name names so I do: Tom Stoppard, David Hare, Howard Barker, the English tradition? He nods.

"The problem for me is that it forces you into a situation where the audience needs to think, 'This is real." There's a particular knack of writing "real" dialogue, which I probably don't possess. It jars. All I'm trying to do, in my half-arsed way, is get a story across.

"The trouble with any play associated with Ireland is that audiences immediately expect it to be about the sectarian divide, but really those problems are superficial and I go out of my way not to tackle them."

He may say this, but how can an audience, especially a British one, brush aside 30 years of bombs and bloodshed - the more so when the IRA is blowing hot and bloodchillingly cold this week over giving up arms?

"It seems odd to say that you can have explosions and killings and bombings and not take notice of them. But when something like that happens day in day out, it becomes part of the fabric of life. …


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