Louis Mellis and David Scinto established a reputation in the 1990s as the bad boys of British screenwriting. They created a thoroughly wired triptych of gangster films, beginning with Gangster Number 1 and rolling on through Sexy Beast and finally the almost surreal 44 Inch Chest. The films as a whole revel in psychotic cockney banter and twisted paranoia. But it is often forgotten that the first of these films began life as a wild play. And now all of that original theatrical energy is coming to the Stables Theatre. Under the direction of the inimitable and anarchic Francis Saunders, Gangster No 1 is likely to be a blast, in more ways than one. 

Gangster No 1 was first performed in 1995 at the Almeida Theatre. The revival is set to hit the Stables Theatre for three days beginning on 10 March. The play, set in the formidable underworld of the 1960s, features five characters: Young Gangster, Gangster 55, Freddie ‘the Butcher’ Mays, Bent Copper and Eddie the idiot. Now, with a name like Gangster No 1 you would expect to see violence and thuggery. But according to a press release, it is apparently about much more than mindless machismo. Evidently, some questions needed answering. HIP caught up with the director Francis Saunders a couple of days ago.

CREDIT: Paula Taylor

HIP: Hello Francis, how are you? 
Francis:  Yes, I am very well thanks. 

HIP: So, Gangster Number 1, can you tell me how this revival has come about? 
Francis:  To be honest it’s one of my top plays – always has been, and I was just desperate to have a crack at it. I loved Sexy Beast and 44 Inch Chest for the quality of writing and Gangster No 1 is the original fount of all that.

HIP: How did it come about?  We know the play has been out of circulation for many years.
Francis: (laughs) Well, I tracked down David Scinto on a social media platform and explained my passion for his work and within two days we were chatting in Brighton. We had lunch and both he and Louis agreed to let me revive the play. I then had to order a copy from a publisher in USA. It is out of print, in the UK.

HIP: So, what is Gangster Number 1? 
Francis: Well, it’s a play about a very complex individual who has many issues. He is troubled but, quite honestly, he is also a complete sociopath. Gangster believes he is in control of everything and tries to intimidate, with physical menace and warped psychology, to gain what he wants. The writing is very clever and direct, but there is a lot of sub-text for the actors to bring to life. To be honest, any of the main parts is an actor’s dream. 

HIP: What about the other characters? Can you elaborate without giving too much away?  
Francis: Gangster’s nemesis, Freddie Mays, is a man sentenced to twenty two years in prison for a murder he did not do. Gangster believes his release will end in a showdown for the top spot. Eddie is a jabbering idiot, but a useful one, that Gangster manipulates. Bent Copper is a shallow, remorseful man who sold his soul to Gangster.  Mel is haunted by memories of her dead friend Karen. It is a volatile mix. 

HIP: This all sounds very intriguing. 
Francis:  It’s going to be great. I have pulled in some great talent: it will be a play that you will definitely remember. It’s got the music, costume and high-energy attitude from the 60s: in fact, I feel excited just thinking about it all. 

HIP: I gather you are playing the character Gangster yourself, as well as directing. 
Francis: Yes, I hope that doesn’t sound arrogant. But I feel a special connection to this play. My take is that Gangster is a repressed homosexual who has a love for his nemesis, Freddie, but he has not addressed these feelings, or possibly can’t understand them. We forget that the sixties, for all its cliched reputation as ‘swinging’, was actually quite tightly buttoned up. The result is anger, paranoia and violent behaviour. Although I must add that you see no violence in this play; the psychological violence is all in the text. The dialogue will take you to strange places. It’s a tough role to play. 

HIP: Jonathan Linsley is co-directing and Nadene Ghouri producing. Tell us more. 
Francis: Yes, I was chatting with my mate Bill Fellows and he suggested Jonathan to co-direct. You see with film its different: you can watch performances back again and again.  But on stage you cannot. You need another pair of eyes. So, we are working together. It’s fabulous. I was a big fan of Jonathan’s work on ‘Last of the Summer Wine.’  Nadene and I have been working on a project together for a while now: a feature film. So, creating this team was a no-brainer really.

HIP: Well, Francis, thanks for your time. I guess you have a vintage Jag waiting outside?
Francis: I couldn’t possibly say.  

For tickets please call The Stables Theatre on 01424 423221 or go to www.stablestheatre.co.uk Performances 10, 11 and 12 March.

We hope you have enjoyed reading this article. The future of our volunteer led, non-profit publication would be far more secure with the aid of a small donation. You can also support local journalism by becoming a friend of HIP. It only takes a minute and we would be very grateful.