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Friday, 10 August, 2001, 15:09 GMT 16:09 UK
Gagarin Way's Edinburgh success
Gregory Burke, playwright
Gregory Burke studied Economics at university
By BBC News Online's Darren Waters in Edinburgh

Playwright Gregory Burke is very much in demand.

The writer of the most talked about play at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Gagarin Way, he is already being described as an overnight sensation despite the fact his debut play took him about 10 years to write.

Since dropping out of Stirling University in the second year of an economics degree he has worked in a variety of low-pay jobs, including dishwashing, and now his play is going to be transferred to the Royal National Theatre.

"It has completely exceeded anything I expected to happen but you just have to wait and see and cling on to the roller coaster," he says.

He was inspired to write his play by a street sign in Lumphinnans in west Fife, a hotbed of communism in the early and middle part of the last century, which read Gagarin Way.

Billy McElhaney
Billy McElhaney stars in the production
He wanted to write about what he saw as the story of the 20th Century.

"It is very ambitious and very silly," he explains. "I wanted to write about the rise and fall of the Soviet Union.

"It was seen as a threat to the West and also seen by working class people, particularly by people in west Fife where I come from, as the hope for the future.

"It's gone now and wiped off the face of the earth."

He adds: "I wanted to know how you got from this great Empire to a street sign in just a generation."

In the hands of many other writers the play could have been a dry drama of empty rhetoric and thudding political point-scoring but Gagarin Way is a hysterically funny play which drives home its message amidst the laughs.

The play is about people and not politics, and people, he says, are funny.

"In all the places I've worked there are hysterically funny people and it's a way of passing the time when you have a job you don't enjoy.

"It's that theatrical thing of once people are laughing and you stop them laughing it works."


It is a weird progression to go from washing dishes to being interviewed by lots of people

Gregory Burke
Born in Dunfermline but brought up in Gibraltar until he was 16 years old, he has developed a great ear for natural dialogue because, he says, "when I came back I had to mimic that accent to sort of fit in".

"At the back of my mind I have always had this idea of writing something. It took me 10 years to get to this point.

"I wrote this in 1997 and waited a year to send it off and John Tiffany, the director, contacted me and said he liked the play so we did a read-in and work-shopped it and re-wrote and got it to the point where it was ready for the stage.

"It is a weird progression to go from washing dishes to being interviewed by lots of people."

Although his background was an aborted economics degree he has grown up surrounded by books and plays.

"I read a lot of non-fiction and a lot of history. I've always read everything - I probably read too much."

Existentialism

His breadth of reading is reflected in the play, which jumps from Marxian and Hegelian theory to the writings of Genet and Sartre, including some excellent jokes about existentialism.

The play focuses around four men of different ages, hopes and fears but a common background.

Two men, one a disaffected thug and the other a disillusioned worker, kidnap a middle-class executive of a multi-national and involve a young graduate working as a security guard against his better judgement and will.

The two men want to force the executive to confront the effect of globalism on the Fife area but nothing, and no one, is as it seems.

"I wanted to cover male working life, from someone in their early 20s to late 50s and it worked out it fitted in neatly that they covered the four stages of work."

The ideas, beliefs and hopes of the four men grate, clash, combine and oppose as their own stories emerge through the play.

In September the play will transfer to the Cottesloe Theatre at the National but Burke is not worried about the future.

"It's all downhill from here," he jokes.

Gagarin Way is on at the Traverse theatre, Edinburgh, until 25 August

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BBC News Online's Darren Waters in Edinburgh
Interview with Gregory Burke
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