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Richard Bean - Hot New Playwright

Philip Fisher meets playwright Richard Bean, who has recently been commissioned by by the National Theatre, the Royal Court and the Bush.

Richard Bean came to playwriting relatively late, after a 20-year career in industry. Possibly as a consequence, he has been making up for lost time. Over the last four years he has written six stage plays and a handful for radio.

Now, he is beginning to be recognised not only as a very prolific playwright but also as an extremely good one. His publicists recently described him as a "hot new playwright" and a good measure of his hipness is the fact that in the last 12 months or so, his plays have been performed at probably the three best new writing theatres in London. Remarkably few playwrights have been commissioned by the National Theatre, the Royal Court and the Bush at all. To work at each in such a short period of time shows that Bean has really made the grade.

Bean's history is hardly that of a conventional playwright. He was brought up in Hull (as he says the word, the accent gravitates several hundred miles north) and like almost all of his university educated characters, went to Loughborough. There, he studied psychology, which set him up for half-a-dozen years as a personnel officer and a further ten acting as an independent occupational psychologist advising NGOs (non-governmental organisations).

In a move that showed remarkable bravery, he made the decision to give up his career to become a full-time playwright. By doing so, he will have become the envy of a generation of 40 year-olds too timid to make a similar leap into the unknown.

Even while he was doing the day-job, Bean was not entirely conventional. He had been building up a second life as a stand-up comic. As he readily admits, while he was perfectly capable of giving a good 20 to 30 minute set in a London pub, he knew he would never be good enough for TV. However, those who have seen any of his plays will recognise his ability to write extremely funny jokes.

Strangely, his life change was at least in part a result of reading the novels of Henry Miller. "He was a personnel officer too and I thought I'd like to escape like him. Like him, I'll always rebel against any orthodoxy. To me, that is the root of fascism".

His first play Toast played Upstairs at the Royal Court. It was fuelled by a year working in a bakery in student days. After that production, he was subsequently lucky enough to obtain a Pearson residency working at the National Theatre's Studio.

Following Mr England at the RNT Studio, he was invited back to write The Mentalists, which was produced in The Lyttelton Loft during the theatre's Transformations Season in 2002. Its playwright describes The Mentalists as "a massively misunderstood play - I see it is a dialectic between permissiveness and authoritarianism". It is still touring in Britain and will open off-Broadway in the New Year. There is also a possibility that it might make it back to London, as it is potentially quite commercial and could easily be star cast.

2003 has been a very good year for Bean, with productions of his play about Hull trawlermen, Under the Whaleback, at the Royal Court and the recent production of The God Botherers at the Bush. In addition, a third play, the delightfully named Smack Family Robinson had its premiere at Live Theatre in Newcastle.

The coming year is already looking promising as another new play, Honeymoon Suite, produced by Stephen Unwin's English Touring Theatre, will mark a significant promotion as Bean makes his first appearance on the big stage, Downstairs at the Royal Court.

So far, Richard Bean has not had any of his plays adapted for television or film. When asked if he would like to make the transition, his answer is an emphatic "No. You never get produced. You end up in development hell. I can't be bothered to do all the work. Mixing autobiography and research isn't worth it just for the money and that's all that TV would be".

He has a strong belief that currently, television gives no real opportunities to produce art nor does it have risky slots available. He met the BBC to discuss Smack Family Robinson but it seemed clear that a play about a sympathetically depicted family of drug dealers in Whitley Bay was not what they were after.

Bean gets quite defensive when discussing this play and reaction to it. "I'm not immoral, there is always a serious point in my black comedy. In Smack Family Robinson, the message is 'legalise drugs and improve the world'. Perhaps my real message is that Boots should sell heroin," he says with a laugh.

He is delighted with the reception for The God Botherers, which has received universally good reviews from the top critics of almost all of the national papers. He is also particularly happy to be working with David Oyelowo who plays Monday. There could hardly be a greater contrast with Oyelowo's last major role as Henry VI for the RSC.

One of the central themes of the play is a pitch for secularism and despite his strong Christian beliefs, Oyelowo is happy to play the part of an irreligious man. He was also the cause of what Bean describes as the most hilarious audition he has ever attended. "David did the missionary accent in a modest way to start with. I asked him to make it louder and he offered to do an impression of his mother talking to his sister". The result can be seen at the Bush.

Remarkably, although he has been to Africa, Bean has never worked there. However, he has many friends who worked for NGOs in Africa and his careworn and blasé characters are to an extent modelled on them.

Ultimately, The God Botherers represents its liberal socialist writer's desire to fight against an orthodoxy that will kill truth. It uses black comedy in a special way that he likens to Joe Orton's work. "Orton said serious things about society and used comedy as a way in. I aspire to tell tragedies with comedy. Under the Whaleback is the closest I have got so far. That was the serious story of the tragic deaths of twenty men and the loss of a community but it is still held together by a vein of comedy".

The night before this interview, Bean managed to take time out from his own play to see Patrick Marber's After Miss Julie and was bowled over by it. "It is really very powerful and unusually for him Michael Grandage directs it slowly. Quite compelling".

The future is already looking rosy. Honeymoon Suite will be a new departure. It is a play about love set in a Bridlington hotel and loosely influenced by Caryl Churchill. Like Under the Whaleback, it is a three-act play, a form that Bean particularly likes as it gives him time to develop ideas.

It is apparently quite funny with political elements and if a playwright can say, "I sit in rehearsals crying my eyes out," it should be on everybody's must see list. On the strength of Richard Bean's earlier plays, any new work by this likeable man should be on every such list.

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©Peter Lathan 2001