PRISON and a large financial company, trading in wads of cash, may seem like two very different places.

But a new play being staged at the Octagon, Bolton, next week, explores how displaying empathy in the two environments can leave you exposed.

The idea for The Thing About Psychopaths formed when writer Ben Tagoe spent a brief period on remand in Mountjoy Prison, Dublin, after getting into a fight in 2000.

He said conditions were tough, with prisoners locked up for 22 hours a day and still “slopping out”, using a bucket as a toilet.

Ben, pictured, said: “I had always wanted to write about that environment. The way people react and survive. It was a bit of a shock to the system. I was very badly treated.

“I’ve always thought that the ability to genuinely care about weaker beings is the thing that separates humans from other animals.

“However, in a prison you soon learn that empathy is dangerous because it leaves you exposed.

“Similarly, all that really matters to a big company is revenue. The most successful people in both those environments have superficial charm, guile and ruthlessness.

“In our society, whether you’re at the top or the bottom, a lack of empathy helps you to succeed.”

The Thing About Psychopaths tells the story of ambitious Noel, who is persuaded by Ray, a senior trader at the financial institution they work for, that he could have more.

But when their activity is exposed, Ray denies all knowledge and Noel ends up facing his
worst nightmare — prison.

Noel, having been set up and the one who takes the fall, has to quickly learn how to cope in a truly brutal environment. Can he manage to stand his ground this time and what is he going to
have to do to make sure that happens?

Ben, who was born and brought up in Perth, Scotland, said: “I don’t want to get too political, but I do think that, as a society there is something about the way we think now — ‘I’m all right Jack’.

“It does seem, in the current climate, when the going gets tough, everyone starts to think about themselves.”

Although a timely examination of how empathy is being squeezed out of our society, Ben promises some laughter.

He said: “The play has got lots of laughs in it. It’s very dark humour. “It’s not completely grim,
although it’s dark and it’s a tough old watch.”

And, looking on the brighter side, he added: “There are still people who care about other people.”

Although he has been to the Octagon before as an audience member to watch plays including Once Upon A Time In Wigan in 2009, this will be the first time the Yorkshire-based writer has
had work staged there.

Ben said: “It’s got a great reputation as a theatre. It’s really well regarded.”

In 2011, Ben was one of only eight writers selected from more than 500 applicants for the BBC Writers Academy, and has since written for BBC shows Doctors, Casualty and Eastenders.

The tour of his latest play started last month, taking in theatres across the country. He said: “It’s been going really well. It took a wee bit to get into it. 

“I think it’s fair to say it’s divided opinion. But generally speaking, I’ve had some great audience feedback, a couple of brilliant reviews. It’s always a bit of pressure, as a writer.”


■ The Thing About Psychopaths, by Red Ladder Theatre Company, is at the Octagon on Thursday and Friday, April 11 and 12. For tickets, £10 or £8 concessions, call the Octagon ticket office on 01204 520661 or visit