Stephen Jeffreys

  • London


Stephen Jeffreys was born in London.

His play, Like Dolls or Angels (1977), won the Sunday Times Playwriting Award at the National Student Drama Festival. He helped to set up Pocket Theatre Cumbria, for whom he wrote a number of plays, including an adaptation of Dickens' Hard Times in 1982. The play Carmen 1936 won an Edinburgh Fringe Festival Fringe First in 1984. Valued Friends (1990) premiered at the Hampstead Theatre in 1989. For some years, he was Literary Associate at the Royal Court Theatre.

His other plays include The Clink (1999), set in Elizabethan London, originally produced by Paines Plough (for whom he was Writer in Residence) at the Riverside Studio in London, and The Libertine (1994) about the 17th-century poet John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester, first staged at the Royal Court Theatre. The Libertine was recently released as a film starring Johnny Depp, for which Stephen Jeffreys wrote the screenplay. A Going Concern (1993) was first staged at the Hampstead Theatre in London. He adapted Richard Brome's A Jovial Crew (1992) for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1992.

I Just Stopped By to See The Man (2000) was first staged at the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, and subsequently at Steppenwolf, Chicago. Interruptions premiered at UC Davis, California, in 2001. His play Lost Land premiered in the Steppenwolf, Chicago, in 2005. The Convict's Opera (2009) has been adapted from John Gay's The Beggar's Opera. His most recent plays are Backbeat, premiered at the Duke of York's Theatre in 2011, and Caught in Flight, a film on Diana, Princess of Wales. 

Stephen Jeffreys is married to the director Annabel Arden and has two sons. He is an experienced teacher and appeared in the Channel 4 documentary, The Play's the Thing, teaching playwrights.

Critical perspective

Revered by fellow playwrights, in particular those of the younger generation, many of whom have benefited from his advice, Stephen Jeffreys has steadily established himself a reputation as one of Britain’s leading dramatists, with a penchant for jumping wildly about eras and themes: from Dickensian London to the war in Iraq and from the Blues to the gallows.

Though recognized early in his career and a recipient of the Sunday Times Playwriting Award (1977) and Evening Standard Award (1989), it was with The Libertine (1994) that Jeffreys achieved what is arguably his greatest success to date. A biopic of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, the infamous Restoration poet and playwright, Jeffreys' piece manages the improbable feat of showing the audience what Rochester himself had failed to achieve in his own time: an accurate portrait of himself. The crux of the play revolves around Rochester's affair with the actress Elizabeth Barry and his relationship with his patron, King Charles II. A haunting exploration of one man's ultimately fatal excesses and stupidities – made all the more tragic by the man's obvious genius – The Libertine is a stand out piece. This however, as various critics pointed out, was unfortunately restricted to the script, as most productions of the play, in their various formats, focused on its ephemeral aspects, and somewhere along the line, lost the humanity that Jeffreys had found in the unlikeliest of places. Premièred at the Royal Court Theatre, the play was later revived at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago with John Malkovich in the lead. 2005 saw the much delayed and anticipated release of the film version of The Libertine with Johnny Depp in the title role; Malkovich again returned to feature in the film, albeit in a new guise as the silently malicious monarch Charles II.

Switching to more familiar times, A Going Concern (1993), about an ailing family business set at the height of London's swinging '60s, is a much underrated part of Jeffreys' repertoire and is an exploration of the ills of mixing family and business. Enter the old fashioned firm of Chapel and Sons, who specialise in billiard tables. Three generations struggle over its future as the enterprise teeters on the brink of failure while still within sight of better fortunes. It features some hard-hitting dialogue, such as this excerpted exchange between a frustrated nephew and his uncle:

'TONY. […] Look at this roof. It leaks in winter, in summer it's an oven. Look at your office. You spend your life there and there isn't a scrap of poxy carpet on the floor. We work in shit because we think we are shit. We don't want to make money because we don't think we deserve it. We're grateful just to make a crust. There's geezers out on the streets, Jack, they've got a tenth of your brains and they do half the work and they're running Rolls Royces because they think they deserve it. We're afraid of being rich. Because we're afraid it might make us happy. 

JACK. We're a family, you can't change family.'

Also known for his intricately researched pieces, Jeffreys has adapted old classics for the stage. His script of Dickens' Hard Times (1982), has been revived on numerous occasions over the past couple of decades. History features heavily in The Convict's Opera (2009). Jeffreys envisions a group of British prisoners staging John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera in the dank and murky depths of the ship during the long voyage from London to Australia. The year is 1812. Much of the piece features excerpts from Gay's classic, as well as numerous sub-plots, including a planned mutiny by the prisoners, which eventually fizzles out and numerous laugh-out-loud incidents, for instance, one where the men dress in drag. Faithful in its evocation of both its precursor and its epoch, the play has echoes of Peter Weiss' classic Marat/Sade (1963), which also drew heavily from the work of both Antonin Artaud and Bertolt Brecht. Although recognized as a thoughtful and highly entertaining piece, the reviews were mixed, with Charles Spencer adding that it's as if the writer/director pairing had tried 'to pour a quart into a pint pot without the luxury of a double-bill' (Charles Spencer, The Telegraph, 23 January 2009).

In 2006, Jeffreys returned to the Steppenwolf with Lost Land, written specifically with John Malkovich in mind. The actor also served as costume designer for the piece. The play is set in the aftermath of the First World War. Enter Hungary, a nation crippled both physically as well as psychologically by the dissolution of its once vast Central European empire; and Count Kristof, an enlightened landowner who presides over a vineyard in the north of the country. Hoping to reform his estate according to his progressive ideals, Kristof is distracted by the offer of a government post. Setting off for Budapest, he leaves his lands in the care of his sister – a puritan soon to fall to the charms of alcohol – and Miklos, an officer who, in the Count's absence, rules his estate in a brutal and feudal manner. Unable to effect his reforms at the centre, Kristof returns disillusioned to find his lands in ruin, dispelling any illusions the audience may entertain about a happy ending. A rather more muted affair than some of its predecessors, Lost Land is nonetheless a quiet triumph, skilfully navigating various themes such as nationalism, the perils of egotism and the dangers of utopian idealism.

No stranger to criticism, Jeffreys' distinguished reply to Michael Billington's scathing review of I Just Stopped By to See the Man (2000) displays an earnest adventurousness to defy the limitations placed on the contemporary writer. In his letter, he says: 'Billington implies that writers who dare to portray anything but immediate autobiographical experience will be flagged offside ... One of the basic requirements for being a playwright is to be able to inhabit other people's skins ...' (Stephen Jeffreys, The Guardian, 13 December 2000). Much sought-after to this day, Jeffreys also runs an influential playwriting workshop, which was featured on The Play's The Thing, a documentary broadcast by Channel 4 in 2006. Among other projects, Jeffreys is currently writing a long awaited book on playwriting for his publisher, Nick Hern Books.

André Naffis-Sahely, 2010


Caught in Flight
The Convict's Opera
I Just Stopped By to See the Man
The Clink
The Libertine
A Going Concern
A Jovial Crew/Richard Brome
Valued Friends
Mobile 4


Evening Standard Award for most promising playwright
Edinburgh Festival Fringe First
Edinburgh Festival Fringe First
Sunday Times Playwriting Award