MANY a writer would get to Dennis Kelly's position and say goodbye to the theatre. Once you had written a series as delightfully funny as Pulling and seen it broadcast on BBC3, followed by a Bafta nomination for best sitcom and a British Comedy Award (for co-writer and star Sharon Horgan), you'd want to capitalise with further small-screen projects. But that's not the way Kelly plays it.
"Pulling might open doors, but it depends whether they're doors you want to go through," says the 39-year-old writer when we meet in a London bar. "It doesn't have any effect on me as a playwright. Once I'd written Pulling, I had a lot of people asking me if I'd be interested in writing various comedies and the answer is no, really. I've already written one and I'm quite happy with what we've done. Early on, I decided it wasn't a good idea to repeat myself too much because I would get bored. Pulling probably has opened up doors, but I ain't noticed it."
It's an attitude that means he regards the two series of Pulling – plus the final one-off special – in the same light as any of his work, such as After The End, a claustrophobic thriller seen at Edinburgh's Traverse in 2006, and Our Teacher's A Troll, the riotous children's show performed this year by the National Theatre of Scotland. He sees himself primarily as a playwright, although he is talking to Horgan about doing something else – perhaps a film – together.
"When I started doing Pulling, the question for me was would I be taken seriously in theatre?" he says. "But you've got to do what you believe in at that time. We were lucky because we had a lot of control over it. They basically let us do what we wanted. It was collaborative with the producer and director, much like it is doing a play."
Now he's back in Edinburgh with Orphans, a psychological thriller about a couple whose evening meal is interrupted when the woman's brother shows up covered in blood. Set in a well-to-do house in a rough area, it is a realistic play ("The most traditional I've written") in which the characters have no escape from the intensity of the real-time action. "It's an incredible rollercoaster," says director Roxana Silbert of Paines Plough, who also worked on After The End. "The play is like a hothouse because the characters are under pressure from the beginning. You just see the heat turned up and up."
Kelly admits he would never have the audacity to write a play that presented a thesis, one that carefully argued a case to win people over. Rather, he uses drama to explore unresolved, elliptical questions. "Roxana has this theory that I constantly contradict myself," he deadpans. "Which I don't."
Such an approach would trouble actors trained under the principles of Stanislavski, the Russian director who broke down dramatic characters into a logical series of desires and actions. To Kelly, this method is reductive.
"It denies our ability to hold completely contradictory opinions in the same mind and in the same moment," he says. "We can think that someone is the best person in the world and two weeks later realise we always hated their guts. Narratives say you are one thing or the other, we're going this way or that way, but being a human isn't like that. We love our friends and we're intensely jealous of them. I know I am capable of incredible generosity, but I can be a real arsehole at times."
Fans of Pulling will find themselves in much darker territory with Orphans, though it is not without its gallows humour. "It's happened in plays I've written previously where the comedy happens in the same moment as the dark stuff," says Kelly. "Actually, in Pulling we never really tried to make it funny, we just tried to make it real. We let the funny come out of the situation – as well as the pain the character was going through at the time."
True to form, he contradicts himself almost immediately. "Even though I say we didn't deliberately make Pulling funny, we sort of did. We knew we were trying to write a comedy. I wouldn't come to Orphans expecting Pulling because it's completely different." v
Orphans, Traverse, Edinburgh, 8-30 August
© Mark Fisher 2009