The story of Debbie, a 40-year-old Wakefield woman, seeking romance on holiday in Egypt and finding a handsome young boat-captain may sound like familiar territory from various plays and films, but this all takes place against the background of the recent Egyptian revolution. The overthrow of President Mubarak is never foregrounded, but the unrest in the country parallels the turmoil in Debbie’s life. Furthermore, Tim Fountain’s Egypt is not a generic land of holiday temptation/fulfilment/frustration. He writes of what he knows, having spent one month each year for the last 10 years working in Egypt.
He clearly loves the country and hopes to go back soon (unless he’s persona not grata after Queen of the Nile!), but is perceptive about the realities of the sex trade in Egypt. His account of gigolos lining up at Luxor to offer favours to both sexes, tempting them with a flood of doubles entendres straight out of Carry on Cleo, is highly entertaining, but not to be quoted on a respectable website!
The story of Debbie’s holiday romance is clouded by the fact that Mahmoud, her boat captain, also “services” (Tim Fountain’s explicit word) an 80-year-old gay restaurateur – one of the many reasons for looking forward to Queen of the Nile is the chance to see the wonderful Dudley Sutton in the role! Amid all the fun, Fountain is interested in showing the fluidity of Muslim sexual politics: the gigolos of the tourist trade, he explains, can provide sex for men without ever entertaining any thought of being gay. The root cause of their actions is, of course, poverty which is, if anything, a greater problem now than when he began writing the play two years ago.
As well as being up to the minute, Queen of the Nile is an occasion for renewing old acquaintances. Tim Fountain was born in Dewsbury (so he knows Debbie’s Wakefield as well as Mahmoud’s Luxor!) and went to university in Hull where his first play, Harold’s Day, was staged in the old Spring Street home of Hull Truck. The director Mike Bradwell is returning to a company that he founded in 1972 when home really was a truck! Director and playwright are also renewing a professional acquaintance that includes four years (1997-2001) working together at London’s Bush Theatre. Their last play together was 12 years ago: Resident Alien, starring the remarkable Bette Bourne as Quentin Crisp, went on to international award-winning success with a New York run and a return to the West End in 2009.
Advance publicity always refers to “controversial playwright Tim Fountain”. I have to ask why. He thinks it must be because of his one-man show at the Edinburgh Festival in 2005. Well, yes, I suppose, if you’re going to do a play called Tim Fountain Sex Addict (which Tim calls a “succes de scandale” and one critic described memorably as like “Alan Bennett talking extremely dirty”), you must expect to be labelled “controversial”. He remains thoroughly cheerful about the label: at least it ensures that people can identify him!
In fact, Tim Fountain has a solid body of work, much of it edgy, with a tendency to write about people who divide opinion: Julie Burchill, Toby Young, Quentin Crisp. His take on the holiday romance comedy will not, he assures me, be middle of the road. How about an outrageous sex comedy that challenges the audience politically and morally? Seems a pretty good idea to me!
Queen of the Nile runs at Hull Truck Theatre from 18 April - 11 May.