Phil Kingston was in his first year at London’s prestigious Central drama school when a senior staff member gave him some sage advice.
“You can be a musician and a smackhead, but you can’t be an actor and a smackhead.”
Kingston was a heroin addict. He paid for his addiction with his commission from work in a fly-by-night advertising sales agency. The company sold ads in publications that didn’t yet exist; if they sold enough to pay for editorial, they’d publish something. If they were rumbled and had to close, they had a replica office kitted out on the floor above, into which they would move, overnight, under a new company name. As a smart, literary smackhead, he was in good company: “most of the top sellers were brilliant, desperate, fractured people,” he recalls.
Heroin was a lifestyle choice for Kingston. As a precocious teenager in a posh Catholic public school, he read “far too much” of William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and F Scott Fitzgerald. He wanted to live on the far side of the tracks. “I seriously wanted to be a junkie rent boy living in London.”
He got the junkie part right, and acquired a drink problem to go with it. And then he decided to become an actor. He drank a bottle of Codeine in the toilets at Central to steady his nerves for the audition, and he got in.
It nearly didn’t work. He was kicked out by his housemates, and nearly kicked out of college. But he got clean. “I transferred the addiction into ambition.”
Clean, but not straightforward. Kingston’s life story doesn’t level out there: he became a writer on ‘The Bill’, then chucked it in to become a Buddhist, then moved to Ireland and back into acting and writing (though still a Buddhist). But this is not a biography. The point is that, when Phil Kingston read the script for ‘Love and Money’ (which is at the Project Arts Centre in Dublin for three weeks from Monday), he got it.
Written by Dennis Kelly (co-writer of the recent hit BBC sitcom, ‘Pulling’, with Sharon Horgan), ‘Love and Money’ is a play with its hand on the throat of the zeitgeist. It is about addiction and self-destruction; in it, Kingston plays the father of a suicidal addict. It’s about “the idea of belief, and lack of belief, and what can fill that lack,” he says. He knows this well: “people are all looking for something to fill that void in our lives.”
“I’m thinking about becoming a Buddhist,” says Jes, the woman at the play’s heart. “I am attracted to its philosophies of acceptance, of being… but I can’t decide if it’s the right thing to do because, on the one hand, David Lynch is a Buddhist, but on the other, so is Richard Gere…
“I’ve also thought about becoming an evangelist Christian, a tramp, some form of terrorist, a communist and a lap dancer, actually… actually, anything that isn’t me.”
What Jes finds, instead, is shopping. She racks up a £70,000 credit card debt, and David, her husband, becomes desperate in his attempt to pay it off. He leaves his job as a teacher to work in a company selling what are effectively sub-prime mortgages (the play was first produced in 2006, before ‘sub-prime’ was common currency). Reviewing the original production in the Daily Telegraph, Charles Spencer wrote that he had “rarely seen a work that more accurately captures the discontented spirit of our materialistic age.”
For Annabelle Comyn, who directs this production, it is not, though, a “state of the nation” play. She describes it, rather, as “an epic”, dealing with “the bigger questions that we’re all dealing with”. Comyn was first attracted to it as a play where “people don’t quite fit into the world around them”. By the time she decided to produce it, with her company, Hatch, the world had changed, and the precise details of the story had acquired a new relevance, finding an clear echo in the travails of the society outside.
“It’s the story of a middle class couple subsumed by debt,” she says, a story of people who find themselves in poverty and are acutely aware of “what they feel they have a right to, and have lost”. “You never think it’s going to affect you,” she says.
So I turn the topic on her: what of the real recession, the one outside the rehearsal room?
“I’m very nervous about it,” she says; some contracts lined up for this year were recently cancelled. But Comyn is meeting the challenge head on: currently trying to pitch projects for next year and the year after, and contemplating how to take artistic advantage of straightened circumstances, perhaps with more simple, pared-back productions.
Likewise, Phil Kingston has a game plan. “I’m concentrating on the area where I have some control – writing. I’m asking myself, what can I innovate? What can I start?”
For now, they’re starting with a timely production of a play by an author with – at least – mild celebrity “pulling” power. For all that’s said above, ‘Love and Money’ is also pretty funny – blackly so, but funny no less. Ironically, this play about financial depression could be a good tonic for the real thing.
Published in the Irish Independent, April 2009