The anthology series has had a renaissance on television with shows like Black Mirror and Inside No 9 proving that contained storytelling can be dramatically satisfying and compulsive viewing. In theatre it is far less common, although Jamie Lloyd’s successful and energised Pinter at the Pinter season is taking a compendium approach to presenting multiple one act plays and monologues across successive evenings. James Graham’s new show Sketching, which has its press night at Wilton’s Music Hall tomorrow, attempts a purer form of anthology, blending stories from eight competition winners to co-create a patchwork of London life.
Graham ran an open search for writers, specifically targeting under-represented voices from around the UK to work with him on a multi-perspective show that uses Sketches by Boz – one of Charles Dickens’s earliest works – as its inspiration. Sketching is a theatrical experiment designed to weave together the individual stories of different London traditions, problems and people to celebrate the diversity and history of our capital, while commenting on a sense of place and identity for those drawn to its flame.
Dickens’s substantial tome is an indispensable guide to nineteenth-century London, and while his various observations and creations exist largely in isolation, together Dickens creates a broad sense of the bustle and scale of the city while delving deeply into the quirky co-existence of all kinds of life within its streets, taking the reader from the humorous to the ponderous and despondent within a few pages. More recently novelists including John Lanchester in Capital and Sebastian Faulks in A Week in December have utilised the anthology approach but deliberately drawn the strands together to create a narrative drive that allows separate characters to cross paths in significant ways. Sketching falls somewhere between the two.
Much has been made of the “writers’ room” approach that Sketching has adopted from television where large multi-episode dramas and soaps use a team of writers to essentially churn out plenty of storylines while collectively retaining an eye for consistencies of character and place. Here, competition winners Aaron Douglas, Adam Hughes, Alan Gordon, Chloe Mi Lin Ewart, Ella Langley, Himanshu Ojha, Naomi Westerman and Sumerah Srivastav have worked alongside Graham to produce the 12 attributable stories listed in the programme.
In many ways Sketching is a vast undertaking, attempting to marry nine individual voices in a single two-hour show, created in less than 12 weeks, with the group only meeting for the first time at the launch event in early July. Perhaps expectedly with relatively little time to write, hone, cast and rehearse, the quality of the overall piece is rather variable and while some stories are consistently tied together, others float loosely around the edge of a show that hasn’t quite decided if it wants to be a series of exploratory “sketches” or a fully integrated drama. Graham constructs a play better than almost anyone, and Sketching’s episodic frame feels like the right approach, scattering scenes from several of the core strands across the production to drive the drama. His own story ‘Peter Piper has a Plan’ is the backbone of the show, uniting some of the disparate elements while adding a small sense of jeopardy to proceedings.
Newly released from prison, Peter Piper is the criminal mastermind behind a dastardly plan to steal the internet and plunge the city into chaos. Travelling around London, Piper incites a number of crucial strikes that lead to his ultimate, and rather surprising, objective. Its initial Tower of London location is reminiscent of Moriarty’s equally crazed bid for power in season two of Sherlock, yet, squeezed for time, the consequences rather fizzle out. Graham’s solid narrative arc allows Peter to interact with a number of other stories and London traditions, which in Samuel James’s sinister performance creates some genuine audience investment. Given more time, this has the potential to be a fascinating study of the multivariant effects of destruction that Peter single-handedly manufactures.
Of the stories attributed to the Writers’ Room, only four have an identifiable stake in show. The strongest comes from Alan Gordon who makes his professional debut with ‘The Emancipation of Shona Bell-e’ about a Scottish Drag Queen who finds herself trapped in a London flat with Kevin who refuses to go outside. Living solely through her fans on the internet, the tension rises between them as cabin fever sets in. It doesn’t connect to the main Peter Piper story, but with another notable and exuberant performance from Samuel James as Shona, supported by Sean Michael Verey’s quietly troubled Kevin, this sensitive piece has much to say about the loneliness of London and the pressure to hide your true self to fit in.
But time prevents a few of the stories from reaching their full potential. Himanshu Ojha’s ‘The Hand of Hozan’ is another pillar of the show with an intriguing twist as a probationary police officer works with a sewage worker to uncover the origins of a mysterious severed hand, using flashbacks to replay the significant moments of Hozan’s life. Sumerah Srivastav’s ‘Mo’s Second Hand Shop’ has a very different central character with lots of possibilities but is so briefly shown in the first half that the major reveal in Act Two feels too sudden and underdeveloped, despite an eleventh hour tie-in with Ojha’s story.
Naomi Westerman’s ‘The Conceptual Artist’ concerns a homeless lesbian couple who take over an empty mansion in Kensington only for one of them to be mistaken for an artist. Westerman comments on the vapid nature of fame, greed and the nonsense of London housing but tonally feels divorced from the rest of the show. A promising sequence about a Billingsgate fishmonger (Samuel James again) who aptly comments that the financial district is built on invisible stock unlike his business that has tangible products to sell has considerable scope for development, with a rather pointed statement to make about the nature and skewed importance of the banking industry to London’s sustainability. Yet the remaining Writers’ Room pieces are difficult to identify.
It’s notable, and even curious, that of the 12 stories listed in the programme four of the longest pieces that connect the show are by Graham, and it’s not at all clear if this is intentional. Alongside the central Peter Piper strand, Graham also contributes ‘The Widow and the Songbird’ about a rare nightingale encounter which has the potential to be quite poignant, ‘A Rebellion in Theatreland’ focusing on mutinous stage door keepers which deserves expansion, and the weak ‘Katie and Tom Try to Move On’, an over-wordy recurring story which, despite a clever ending, fails to convince as a long-parted couple agonise over their feelings for one another, poorly performed by Verey and Sophie Wu. As a test case for collective approaches to theatre writing that create opportunity for diversity Sketching is clearly an important step forward, and while many of the stories are interesting, at times the show feels as though it has been patched-up or rescued by its senior writer.
Sketching is a solid evening, but lacking polish it never quite moves beyond a series of possibilities. It entertains in part, and genuinely engages in others, yet its multi-writer format pulls its structure in different directions; on the one hand it actively overlaps narratives and characters to create a coherent drama but also takes the Dicken’s approach with several sketches that exist in isolation, making for a slightly unsatisfactory and inconsistent whole. That variation extends to the show’s presentation as narrators actively link passages together, speaking directly to the audience, while alternatively scenes and Dicken’s quotes bleed into one another without any external commentary. It’s never clear if we are being guided to particular experiences of London to make a specific point, or whether snatches of life are presented as they exist for the audience to draw its own conclusions.
Ellan Parry’s simple design allows the actors to swiftly merge into dozens of characters with just a change of hat or coat, and the minimal approach to staging helps us to conjure a variety of locations in an instant. Yet Parry has added a high rigged table to connect the upper and lower parts of the Wilton stage. Much of the action takes place on this raised and titled platform that gives a good view from the circle but results in neck ache for the front stalls – what this odd structure is meant to represent or facilitate is less clear. Thankfully, Daniel Denton’s beautiful video projections reinforce the title with a series of black and white sketches inspired by mid-century French styles, providing a simple but meaningful backdrop of locations, maps and animation that add a touch of magic to the overall effect.
Sketching is certainly an interesting test case and the fact it exists at all is probably more important than its content. Along with Graham’s passionate advocation of arts education and desire to offer the same mentoring support he received as a young writer, whether Sketching is a good play is secondary to its importance as a political statement about access for new and diverse voices. There are some really strong ideas here and a lot of talent among the Writers’ Room but space to develop is lacking in a show that needs to include too much. The consequence of running a competition means each ‘winner’ must be heard and the weaker ideas cannot be jettisoned to create space for the stronger to thrive.
That’s not to say that collective approaches to theatre writing cannot be successful, and indeed elements of Sketching prove they can be, but the overall outcome needs to be more streamlined, limiting the focus to five or six stronger stories co-written by the group, Alternatively an entirely anthological approach could work with a tighter theme; London is a big sprawling city heaving with stories, but the breadth of the responses to that makes it harder to weave into a single, consistent and meaningful evening of theatre.
Sketching is very much a work in progress, both in the career development of the collective writers as a stepping stone to the demands and expectations of professional theatre, and in the construction and refinement of new modes of creating. Given more time and focus, a Writers’ Room model would be an interesting one to replicate, changing the nature of individualist theatre writing. Sketching is a show that doesn’t feel quite ready for its audience, but it is an important marker for the sector, a chance to think more broadly and even radically about routes to access, opportunity and perspective that can open the door to new voices.