IT IS only Tuesday teatime in Newcastle city centre, but, already, carefully demarcated packs of jacketless lads and lasses in hanky-size skirts are on the prowl, in search of that ever-elusive good time. This is the heart of Viz-country, where the cruel but hilarious parodies of home-grown low-life -The Fat Slags, Sid The Sexist, et al - seem to have stumbled straight off the page of the comic. Such economically-challenged grotesques have acquired a near-Dickensian immortality, destined to repeat their tragic adventures in nowhereland ad nauseum.
Across town, on stage at Newcastle Playhouse, a group of actors are going through the workaday motions of the final technical rehearsal before opening night. The characters talk of doing smack, of violent sexual abuse as an everyday occurrence, and of lives over-lapping in the most brutal of landscapes. It sounds neither sensationalist nor exploitative, but ugly, matter-of-fact, and how it is.
Of course, the lines are not of the actors' devising. But nor, strictly speaking, do they belong to playwright Robin Soans either. Because the words of A State Affair are taken, verbatim, from conversations two years ago with residents of Bradford's run-down Buttershaw estate. There, just like in Viz-land, domestic, drug, and alcohol abuse are rampant, as are crime, promiscuity, and teenage pregnancy. But, while Buttershaw may be occupied by characters, they're by no means cartoons.
Just look at Rita, Sue and Bob Too. No, not Alan Clark's mid-eighties movie of Andrea Dunbar's play about sexual trysts between two schoolgirls and their wideboy employer. There, it came complete with the next best thing to a happy ending and Black Lace singing We're Having A Gang-Bang. This Rita, Sue And Bob Too premiered at the Royal Court in 1982, when estates like Buttershaw were being wiped off the map of Thatcher's Britain in the then prime minister's first destructive flourish.
''I don't think Andrea liked the film very much,'' says Max Stafford-Clark in diplomatic understatement. Stafford-Clark is director of both the original production and the touring revival that arrives in Edinburgh tonight. He recognises, however, that the movie is probably what has given the play its long life, by packing in audiences who are expecting a cheeky northern bedroom romp, only to be kicked in the teeth. And, if A State Affair continues the assault, so much the better.
''In London, it's seen as part of a social debate,'' says Stafford-Clark, ''but in the north it's perceived as popular drama and, on that level, doesn't quite deliver because it gets grimmer and grimmer as it goes along. In Leeds, about a third of the audience were first-time theatregoers, which, while the actors had a great time, created its own set of problems because people were going in and out for drinks. At one point someone shouted out, 'Give her one'. ''
Rita, Sue and Bob Too was Dunbar's second play. Her first, The Arbor, set, as always, in Buttershaw, somewhat circuitously found its way into a Royal Court young writers' festival, where Stafford-Clark was struck by the play's vigour and candour.
''Andrea never thought she'd write another play,'' Stafford-Clark recalls. ''It was only when she realised she'd get paid that she got down to it. So you'd suggest a scene and she'd write it, but if you suggested something from the mother's perspective, she'd say she couldn't do it because she had not heard it. But at the end of the play there's this pre-feminist feminist moment. The great thing about this play is that the girls are never victims.''
Stafford-Clark has spent his working life discovering writers like this, ever since he ran Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre in its old Grassmarket garret in the early seventies. Later he founded Joint Stock on fashionable collectivist grounds before a lengthy stint at the Royal Court, which he only left in 1993 to build from scratch the less ideologically simplistic Out of Joint, which coincided with a new wave of writers more in accord with the company name's splintered implications.
Stafford-Clark could afford to sit out the recent round of musical chairs in London, with artistic directorships up for grabs at the National, the Almeida, and Hampstead. He says he has no desire to run a theatre building now, though he did apply for the job at the National, ''just to be part of the debate, I suppose. I was never a front-runner and I certainly didn't expect to get it''.
Such seeming abstractions are of little consequence to most outside London's theatrical enclave, where sensation-seeking hedonism between consenting adults is a way of life. It certainly had little effect on Dunbar, who, rather than jump ship like umpteen working class heroes before her, stayed in Buttershaw, where she drank, fought with the neighbours, was beaten up by boyfriends, and had three children, all to separate fathers. Stafford-Clark likens writing to boxing, in that both pursuits enable an escape from the mean streets of working-class life. ''Andrea had no desire to escape,'' he says.
Getting by was a full-time job, made even harder by success. A third play, Shirley, followed, but by the time she was 29, Andrea Dunbar was dead after suffering a brain haemorrhage.
One of the people Stafford-Clark spoke to for A State Affair was Dunbar's daughter, Lorraine, a heroin addict and, in an all too familiar case of history repeating itself, a single mother. ''She can't stand her mother. Andrea used to go to the pub and take the handle off the bedroom door so the kids couldn't get out. So, while she wrote about brutality with great skill, she was also brutalised by that world.''
By 7pm the Playhouse bar is filling up. Student types and would-be starlets mix and match, the usual pre-show punters for a theatre next to a university. Except, in the corner, hard-nosed and hawk-eyed, stand a few teenage girls whose street smart dressed-upness suggests they've not darkened these doors before. Chewing gum, sticking to their own, they scan the bar with invisible antennae. Just let anyone dare.
Outside, more of them hang about, sharing one last tab before they brave indoors. One girl sits apart on a bench, scowling in between smoke-rings, an invisible wall between her, the cold and the rest of the world. In Viz-land, Buttershaw, and a million places like it, the night is still young - and getting younger by the minute.
The double bill of Rita, Sue and Bob Too and A State Affair is at the Traverse, Edinburgh, to Saturday.
The Herald, February 7th 2002