Somewhere in Highgate, north London, three men are sitting round a kitchen table writing a play about the London mayoral election. One of them frets. One of them soothes. And one of them complains about ugly sentences. They are Andy de la Tour, Tariq Ali and Howard Brenton respectively.
I sit on the sofa, next to a pink book entitled Socialism and Democracy, an Arsenal scarf and a cap which claims that "Skateboarding is not a Crime". We are in Ali's freezing cold kitchen. He doesn't switch on the central heating. There is silence, broken only by the soft plink of the laptop in front of de la Tour. Ali watches him. Suddenly he speaks.
"Andy - you're not happy."
"No - it's just that, well, I've lost the mouse again."
Brenton gets up to investigate. He looks like a great dour farmer, but when his mouth opens, a surprising finicky chirrup comes out.
"If you had a nipple, this wouldn't happen, you know. I have a nipple. I love them."
They have almost finished Snogging Ken. It has taken them one week. By the time this piece is printed, the play, a late-night show using the restaurant set of Pinter's Celebration, will already have opened at the Almeida Theatre in London.
Ali and Brenton have collaborated before, with Moscow Gold (about Mikhail Gorbachev's struggle for power), Iranian Nights (the fatwah), and Ugly Rumours (the friction between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown). Last May, Andy de la Tour joined them to write Collateral Damage (the bombing of the Balkans). The last three are "Instant History Plays". Brenton is eager to maintain a distinction between "proper" plays, which he still writes, and the "disposable theatre" of their alliance, Stigma, which trades in "annoyers" - "specifically political knockabout".
But don't these annoyers relate to the agitprop of the Seventies, and the angry political plays that Brenton, David Hare, Trevor Griffiths, and David Edgar were writing? I quote Hare: "Our aggression stems . . . from a basic contempt for people who go to the theatre." Brenton bursts out laughing.
"When did David say that?"
"That was 28 years ago!" He chuckles wistfully. "Oh, in those days, we were terribly . . . well, we were . . . John Osborne said we were very hairy-armpitted."
This trio don't take themselves so seriously nowadays. But they still share the same left-wing politics. They all went on the same marches. And they still feel, Brenton says, that theatre "should be bright and outrageous and hot". But they are older, more relaxed, more jovial. This new play displays their fundamental benevolence. Ali says: "It's a sort of joy, really. It's a celebration of Ken - we're delighted that he's decided to stand as mayor."
However, there is definitely a sense of duty as well as pleasure. These are men of conscience who are politically passionate enough to write the plays that everyone else lazily leaves to them. While others kept mum, they wrote Iranian Nights. Ali says: "People were just genuinely scared to speak up about it at that moment." Brenton chimes in: "We were trying to do a job - disperse the fear." Snogging Ken is another job they feel ought to be done - a satire on the absurdities of the mayoral election. "Unfortunately, nobody else is going to write it and put it on," says de la Tour, "so I suppose we've got to do it."
Collaboration helps. To write the play on your own, de la Tour reflects, "would be a totally miserable experience". They can enjoy improvising it as a triumvirate. "The process is speeded up. The fundamental principle of democracy is that you need an odd number," says de la Tour. In other words, two people continually gang up against a third.
A morning with them, and it's comically clear how each personality contributes. Take a scene in which two Blair babes - one naive, the other knowing - plot Ken's downfall. Brenton, the natural playwright, is the only one who worries about character, continually glossing lines. "Pandora's tetchy here, isn't she? She's saying . . ." And he is leery of speeches. "Thing is, she's running on a bit, couldn't we break it with a Lola line?" He also objects to de la Tour's liberal use of exclamation and question marks. "I mean, Andy, you've got double question marks in here. What is all this? And then all these exclamation marks. Take them out."
"I thought some of them read quite well. In fact, one of them was yours."
"Take them all out."
They are ruthless with each other. Brenton's own weakness is for the poetic turn of phrase. As the computer crashes once more, he murmurs, "the Alzheimer's of technology". The others are aware of his foible. When he reaches the line "Flash bulbs in front of flash restaurants", Ali asks suspiciously: "What's all this? A bit of Brenton poetry?"
"Any fucking poetry - out of the door, mate," says de la Tour.
The contemporary nature of their subject is both a pleasure and a problem. The Guardian criticised Collateral Damage. Do we really want the theatre to rehearse the same argument we've been having all day? Don't we go to the theatre to escape current affairs? Not necessarily. When Harold Pinter's The Dumb Waiter was performed in Iran, under the Shah, the Iranian audiences immediately identified with a situation where enigmatic orders arrived from a mysterious power above. They allegorised the play to fit their own political situation. But Pinter is a special case. His plays, such as Mountain Language or One For The Road, though undeniably political, are deliberately set in a non-specific no-man's-land, and therefore they are endlessly relevant. The very specificity that guarantees the relevance of Stigma plays makes them perishable.
However, the authors aren't worried about the afterlife of the play. Let it die. Their real worry is that their parodic predictions could be fulfilled before the curtain even goes up. But topicality, as Ali admits, is "what gives the whole thing a buzz, if you can comment on something that's going on, that isn't even finished - and put it on stage to intervene in that process."
They turn their attention back to a particularly stubborn gag - a homophobe's vision of Ken orchestrating gay marriages.
Brenton: Standing there, chain of office round his neck . . .
Ali: . . . Oscar Wilde in his hand - instead of the Bible.
de la Tour: Too wordy and not funny.
Brenton: In some robe? We need visual comedy.
de la Tour: A priest's robe?
Brenton: No - a made-up robe. Like a druid.
Ali: Dirty raincoat.
Brenton: (Worried) Why is a dirty raincoat particularly gay?
Ali: Who was the gay saint?
Brenton: Some kind of pink robe, perhaps.
Ali: De Profundis . . . no, they won't get it.
Brenton: (Brightly) A pink dressing-gown!
Andy: Problem is - what's the joke? There is no joke.
Ali: (Lets his glasses drop from his forehead onto his nose) I think we've wasted too much time on gay marriage. (He sighs) Let's move on.
Disposable theatre. By the yard. I loved it. Maybe someone should write a play about it.
Snogging Ken is at the Almeida Theatre for seven performances only: 18-20 April, 25-28 April, 10pm (020-7359 4404). Snogging Ken and the Stigma Manifesto are both published by Oberon Books
Nina Raine is a freelance writer. She is also appearing in Harold Pinter's Celebration at the Almeida Theatre
The Stigma Manifesto