Tag Archives: James Graham

Sketching – Wilton’s Music Hall

Sketching - Wilton's Music Hall

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.

Sketching is at Wilton’s Music Hall until 28 October with tickets from £9-£33. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

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Quiz as State of the Nation Drama – Noel Coward Theatre

Quiz by Johan Persson

When you hold a mirror up to our society what can you see? The obvious things perhaps; an obsession with social media, selfies and surface, the continual loosening of social responsibilities, and a nation divided as its struggles to reconcile its continual attempts to look backwards and forwards at the same time. But look deeper and there are cracks everywhere, in every system, every support service, in every pillar of our social structure, and you start to wonder where did it all go wrong? Our greatest political playwrights have always interpreted the times we live in, and, as Quiz transfers to the West End, James Graham’s insightful reflections on crucial moments in post-war history have fast become a vital resource in understanding who we are.

In a little over a year, Graham has had four highly regarded plays running in the West End, three of which, since September, have been entirely new work. It’s an outstanding achievement, almost without comparison in modern theatre, and after picking up his first Olivier Award last night for Labour of Love (plus a Supporting Actor award for Bertie Carvel’s turn in Ink), this is a good time to reflect on what has been an astonishing year, one in which Graham has found a unique interplay between political purpose and popular style.

This House, which has had a remarkable lifespan since its premiere in 2012 and is currently on national tour, showed us the marked difference between political self-interest and genuine government, where staying in power at all costs outstrips the business of passing legislation for the greatest good. Set in the 1970s at a moment of upheaval that shifted British politics to the right, into Thatcher’s willing arms, and changed it forever, in This House Graham shows us why our democratic system now feels so remote from the people it governs, with constituency representation frequently losing out to individual ambition and Party directive.

This is exactly the theme of Labour of Love, in which Graham pits New against Old Labour in one particular midlands constituency over 20 years to show us the deep division and confliction of purpose that runs through our political parties. When a shiny young man with a bright Ministerial future is parachuted into a safe Labour seat in the mid-1990s, it causes considerable upset for the more traditional left-leaning local constituency office. Over two decades we observe the problems caused by MPs treading water until they can get somewhere better and Labour’s failure to bridge the precipice that still runs down the centre of the Party.

And finally with Ink, Graham explained the rise and rise of the tabloid, and its unshakeable hold on every kind of political and popular thinking. Again, using the crucial period 1969-70 when Rupert Murdoch purchased the newspaper and set its editor Larry Lamb a target to beat its nearest rival, the pair essentially opened Pandora’s Box, unleashing every base and questionable journalistic impulse to create a public appetite for sleaze and scandal we are far from abating even 50 years later. Crucially, Graham shows us, that the fourth estate is an entirely unelected group of people with little but sales figures and click bait in mind, and undergoes almost no scrutiny, but their continual intervention and control of public opinion wields a fearsome power that challenges the independence of many of our oldest institutions.

Collectively, this is a body of work that tells us that much is broken, that the once enviable clarity of our democratic system and freedom of the press have curdled, where the gap between the government and the governed has never felt wider. None of it, Graham suggests is beyond hope, its all still worth fighting for, but that there are crucial moments in history – much like the one we’re living through now – where there is a chance to change things for the better, because getting it wrong will lead to decades of rot. And throughout, Graham asks questions about the power of the individual to effect change, where even the best intentions can forge an unexpected future.

So, to Quiz and the power of the television media to thwart or even misdirect our justice system. Transferring from Chichester where it opened to rave reviews, Quiz is about fluctuating concepts of truth in a world of fake news and trial by television. What does justice mean in this new environment and does it have anything to do with truth and fairness? At the heart of Quiz is a debate about the nature of innocence and the extent to which our legal system, founded on the principle that guilt must be proven beyond doubt, is subject to the highest bidder, where scant circumstantial coincidence can be contorted to suggest an alternative story. Quiz effectively sets the near powerless individual against the might of a TV company with the resources to influence not just the outcome of a trial but also our collective memory of an incident none of us ever saw.

Mention the name Charles Ingram and your first thought will be millionaire cheat. But that perception, Graham argues, has been manufactured by a powerful media of newspapers and television, and embedded by 15 years of mythology. With only a few small tweaks since its Chichester run, Quiz is still as sharp and exciting as it was 6 months ago (see previous review here), presenting the case for the prosecution in the first half and the case for the defence in the second, based on the book Bad Show by Bob Woffinden and James Plaskett (well worth a read if you want more detail on the case).

Getting a West End transfer right is not always easy, but director Daniel Evans and designer Robert Jones have clearly thought carefully about how best to bring their ¾ -round production into the proscenium arch theatre. Fitting perfectly onto the slightly adapted Noel Coward stage, which has been turned into a TV studio with onstage seating, Jones’s design reflects the exuberant glitz of the TV game show, a brightly lit world of neon cubes, flashing panels and multiple screens to relay the drama from every angle.

Some additions include a new warm-up act, played by the chameleonic Kier Charles, to start the two halves, reinforcing the falsity of the gameshow set-up, nodding to the mask performers wear in public, while crucially (and finally) delivering those pub quiz answers at the start of Act Two which were absent from the Chichester version. But most importantly, the warm-up act creates the tone of the show, the fundamental purpose of which is to bring the audience into the action from the start. This is no passive West End play where you sit back and receive a performance, but through the pub quiz round, an opportunity to appear in the montages and the chance to vote on Ingram’s guilt using the electronic devices attached to every seat, the audience is constantly asked to play along, to think and pass judgement on what you have seen, much as you would if you read the ‘evidence’ in a newspaper.

And you can certainly feel the auditorium responding to Graham’s dramatic techniques more actively than most West End shows. People engage with each other as the baton is handed back to us to make decisions, but also, given the addictive nature of the Millionaire format, people mutter as they try to answer the questions in the reconstructed TV scenes or in the wonderful section where the Ingram’s test their popular culture knowledge by guessing the karaoke tune and identifying classic characters from Coronation Street, almost as if they were watching a game show at home on the sofa. How interesting an NT Live screening of this play would be – introducing the screen element to a concept that deliberately comments on how we use screens to make cursory assessments of truth and justice.

Graham’s work is always full of wonderfully observed pop culture references and a warm nostalgia for the cultural past, but in Quiz these really come into their own, and you can feel the audience’s delight as Graham walks us through the wider context of the Ingram case. The fantastic gameshow montage is still a high point, and while Brucie may have been excised to make way for other content, there is still so much charm in the recreated version of The Price is Right and Bullseye, now even more poignant given the passing of the great Jim Bowen since the Chichester run. And while you can feel Graham gleefully revelling in his childhood memories, it also evokes the same connection for much of the room, of a simpler time that was clearly the forerunner of the madness of Who Wants to be a Millionaire and our more recent obsession with constructed reality TV.

Daniel Evans’s direction is light and effortless, with the action moving so effortlessly that 2.5 hours speeds by. But the fun elements of the story remain perfectly in balance with the play’s serious purpose, so the tension builds carefully in the Millionaire scenes and there are several poignant moments where the once colourful world is starkly lit by Tim Lutkin as the consequences of the action and the real nature of ‘justice’ are truly felt.

The performances have deepened since the earlier run, and Kier Charles almost steals the show with his hilarious portrayal of a collection of much-loved TV hosts. From Leslie Crowther and Bowen to Chris Tarrant, Charles clearly relishes every moment, amplifying the tics and mannerisms of each of these well-loved presenters with often hilarious results. Gavin Spokes as Major Ingram has found greater depths of emotion in the role, so that now the damaging effects of his time in the hot seat are considerably more poignant, while quiz-loving Diana played by Stephanie Street is a tad more ambiguous.

Two further notable points also emerge from the West End run of Quiz ; first that London audiences are considerably more cynical than those in Chichester, and while there is a swing towards Not Guilty after the second half, the statistics for recent performances show it is far closer to 50:50 than it was in West Sussex; Second, in reality the way justice is dispensed can be wildly disproportionate to the crime committed. While the Ingrams may have been given relatively short suspended sentences to accompany their guilty verdicts with the need for justice to ‘seen to be done’, the wider response was ludicrous. Graham leaves us to question whether they really deserved to be hounded by the press and the public everywhere they went, to have their children bullied at school, to have their pets shot and for Charles Ingram’s much-loved army career to be terminated, all for supposedly cheating on a quiz show? Multiple lives irreparably damaged for arguably a minor infraction?

Like the plays that have gone before, Graham has taken a key moment in TV history and asked us to think more carefully about what it means and why it set society on a new, less worthy, path. Justice doesn’t begin and end in court rooms any more, and while the media can whip up a frenzy and bring the full might of the mob down on the powerless individual, there seems to be little hope of fairness. If you leave this show discussing the case and the way in which we all jump to conclusions, then Graham has done his job because challenging how we all respond to the institutions that wield societal power is the only way to improve them. As for Quiz itself, as a theatrical experience, let’s leave the final word to Jim Bowen – super, smashing, great!

Quiz is at the Noel Coward Theatre until 16 June. Tickets start at £15 with day seats available for £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


This House – National Theatre Tour

 

This House - National Theatre Tour

As we wade through the deepening quagmire that has become Westminster politics, it’s hard not to look back at the Coalition government of 2010-2015 as a brighter more optimistic time in modern Britain. On the surface at least, the hung Parliament offered a chance to put party division aside, forcing politicians to work together and finally reflect what seemed to be a growing public disillusion with opposition for opposition’s sake and the petty playground tactics of party politics. No one thought it would last the year, but from the outside the Conservative-Liberal Coalition government seemed optimistic, fresh and, coinciding with the London Olympics, it was a time of proper compromise, national pride and inclusion.

Of course it wasn’t. As every A-level politics teacher will tell you, coalitions mean instability in which someone always loses, in this case the Liberal Democrats who were decimated at the 2015 election. But from where we are now – divided and uncertain with shambolic leadership – how halcyonic those days of the Coalition now seem. They happen so rarely that they fascinate us, before 2010 the last coalition government was almost 40 years before from 1974-1979, a scrappy affair in which the Whips kept the Labour Party in government by the skin of their teeth for just shy of a full term. Drawing a direct parallel between the two eras, This House, first performed in 2012, and currently on a nationwide tour, is a fascinating insight into “the deals business”.

It’s been a least 5 minutes since someone last heaped praise on writer James Graham, and with two 2018 Olivier nominations for his most recent West End successes, Ink and Labour of Love, and the transfer of his superb new play Quiz in a fortnight, it’s a good opportunity to look back at where it all began, the also Olivier nominated This House. Well, not quite where it all began, there was plenty of admirable fringe work, but Graham’s first big West End show enjoyed runs in two of the auditoria at the National Theatre in 2012 and a 2015 revival in Chichester which then transferred to the Garrick in 2016. Having managed to miss all of these, and a little late to the political party, the current National Theatre tour, which runs until June, docked at the Cambridge Arts Theatre last week, and proves a well-researched and engaging response to our recent political history.

Its 1974 and Labour scrape into power with a wafer-thin majority which, for its team of Whips, means a tough 5 years lay ahead as they are forced to make deals not only with the smaller opposition parties but with their own MPs just to get bills through the House. As they cling to power, it becomes harder to keep the ship afloat, and when an accusation of cheating tears up the informal rule book the Tory Whips amplify hostilities. Is staying in power enough if you can’t actually govern?

Graham’s play utilises three structural pillars to give shape to the rather circular business of Government activity, with the story outlining the many rounds of debate and manipulation required to achieve a majority vote on bill after bill. First, the play limits itself to two main locations, the opposing offices of the main party Whips, where all information, news and drama is distilled effectively through the experiences of these rooms. It ensures the focus of the play remains tightly on this set of decisive characters who we come to know well, while heightening both the dramatic tension and comedic effect as plans and their outcomes are cooked-up and debated by each side.

These are then batted back-and-forth as successive scenes cut from one side to the other, occasionally even completing each other’s sentences or stories like an elaborate and fast-moving game of tennis. Graham avoids repetitiveness by inserting merged scenes where votes are won and lost in the house itself, and a thematic section on the physical and moral decrepitude staged behind the famous Parliamentary clock-face. All of this serves to create a sense of the wider political activity beyond the walls of the office – one of the most successful aspects of This House is the credible world it creates, that all the talking genuinely reflects a high stakes game being played by hundreds of MPs around the building.

Second, Graham uses the role of the Speaker of the House to act as our guide to events, so just as he does in the Chamber, here he announces the constituency name of every MP to appear on the stage. This gives the audience both a sense of the formalities of Parliamentary life and the enormous job of the Whips in trying to balance the far-reaching needs of around 600 elected representatives trying to earn favour for their constituencies or personal advancement in the party. As a theatrical tool, it also allows the cast to play multiple roles in a series of small cameos while helping the audience keep track.

Finally, there are the aspects of construction that have since become hallmarks of Graham’s entertaining style – the integration of music, popular culture references and hyper-real montages that demonstrate a flair for popular engagement. These were less notable in Labour of Love but Ink and Quiz married serious debate with a lightness of touch that rarely combine so well. This House has some full-cast choreographed numbers, quick-fire tableaux as desperate deals are made on the hoof or as the sick are wheeled in to vote, while the onstage band visible leave their hippy stylings behind to embrace the emergence of punk as the 70s wear all. All small but careful touches that add to the richness of the work and the era it reflects.

At its heart, This House is a debate about the purpose of government, when clinging on to power becomes more important than doing any of the things the party was elected for. As the deals become harder to put together, we’re shown the growing separation between constituency and party, between toeing the line and personal conscience, between active government and just keeping the others out. None of it is very pretty or even admirable, but there’s still a sense that the British style of democracy, when it works, is ultimately irreplaceable.

Amidst all of this, Graham still manages to create a set of central characters that the audience can invest in, regardless of their political allegiance. Chief among them is Martin Marquez’s Bob Mellish, a tough working-class bruiser whose realistic management of the Whips office belies a passionate love of the party he’s devoted his career to. Marquez’s sharp characterisation sets the tone for those who fall into his orbit, and it is Bob’s grit that is keeping the Government afloat.

He’s ably supported by a diverse team of largely northern MPs who share his determination. James Gaddas as permanent deputy Walter Harrison is gruff and overly sure of himself but develops meaningfully as the play unfolds, with a deep buried heart and conscience that begin to beat louder. As the first female Whip, Natalie Grady’s Ann Taylor forges ahead growing in confidence as the years pass, introducing a less confrontational style that still produces results – while Bob and Walter may represent the past, Ann is the future. Grady’s Ann well signifies the clash of idealism with the reality of governing, so like her colleagues must eventually confront the ways in which her own dedication to the party obstructs rather than supports democracy.

On the other team, the three Tory Whips couldn’t be more different. But despite their refined manners and expensive suits, Graham avoids caricature with an equally interesting exploration of their dedication to party cause and entitlement to rule that is challenged by Labour’s shaky term in office. William Chubb’s Humphrey Atkins, like Bob Mellish, is a man out of time, representing a style of politics and fair play that is rapidly disappearing. His contempt for the Government is clear with a series of stinging lines, brilliantly landed by Chubb, that present a man finding opposition unfathomable, a blip in the natural order of things.

But it is Matthew Pidgeon’s Jack Weatherill who develops most, the Tory Deputy Whip whose time in opposition brings into question the whole purpose of his role. Pidgeon subtly relays Weatherill’s growing disillusion with party politics and the internal cost to his own self-assurance that comes from increasingly desperate tactics to frustrate the Government. A clever mirror for Walter Harrison, these two very different men start to question what good they’ve really done in a lifetime of party service.

You care about all of these people, regardless of their party stance, and what could have been a collection of geographical stereotypes, becomes a true representation of the country. The wider cast play around 30 constituency MPs, some just after a new carpet or sofa for their office, one who fakes his own death, one arrested for murder, one breastfeeding in Parliament, some from Scotland or Northern Ireland who need to put nationalism before personal gain, plenty of sick and dying, and a few passionately committed to their socialist roots who vote against their centre-moving party including Louise Ludgate’s broadly comic MP who’d rather pay a £20 fine than go against her conscience. We don’t need to know any of these people well, but they are an indication of the wider tide of Westminster and the competing needs that both sets of Whips must manage on every single vote. And it’s a lovely touch to have a few of them go on an audience meet-and-greet during the interval.

Graham’s play is more than a historical documentary, it is a living, breathing evocation of Parliamentary life that has plenty to say about the male-dominated, macho world of party politics that pits ideology against practicality every single day. And while it focuses on the increasingly unstable attempt to make laws, the wider context of party in-fighting, leadership challenges on both sides and the changing demographic of Labour MPs is as much about the here and now as it is the late 1970s where the shadow of Thatcher and irreparable change looms ominously.

The grubbiness of the system Graham presents in This House explains how we ended up here today, and despite growing apathy with all parties, Graham’s writing makes you care about politics again, makes you believe it matters even when it’s broken. Although written in 2012, the cyclical nature of politics means that the play is just as relevant now, with a Government attempting a major democratic change on a tiny majority, having to make unholy alliances just to get things done. The Coalition government of 2010-2015 may seem like a happier time but this is the result, just spare a thought for the poor Whips, the ‘engine-room’ of Parliament who keep it all afloat.

This House is on national tour until 2 June and scheduled to visit Bath, Edinburgh, Nottingham, Birmingham, Salford, Plymouth, Norwich, Malvern, Guilford and Sheffield. Please check local venues for times and prices. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Quiz – Minerva Theatre, Chichester

Quiz, Minerva Theatre

Sometimes even Londoners need to leave the capital in search of excellent theatre and there are few more compelling reasons to get on a train than a new play by James Graham. In what has been an extraordinary 6 months for the writer, with two brand new plays running side-by-side on St Martin’s Lane, his latest new show Quiz premieres at the Minerva Theatre in Chichester, and London theatre managers should start clearing space and putting in their bids for what should be a guaranteed transfer in the coming months. What makes Graham’s work worthy of trip beyond the M25 is not just the rate of production, but the deeply researched stories that make for an extraordinarily consistent level of quality.

Regional theatre frequently feeds shows into the West End, and while these are largely revivals, Chichester Festival Theatre in particular has a provided some highly acclaimed productions in the last few years, including the Young Chekhov season, Half a Sixpence, Gypsy and the best version of Private Lives in a decade with Toby Stephens and Anna Chancellor. With two sizeable theatres, the larger Festival Theatre and the smaller Minerva studio space, Chichester has much to offer a young production, trying out work before national tours and London transfers.

In his new play, Graham examines the British idea of fair play and our national obsession with all kinds of quizzes, taking the audience on a trip from local pub competitions to the high-stakes gameshow in a compelling examination of trial by television. Central to all of this, is the story of Charles and Diana Ingram who were accused of fraud when Charles became the third jackpot winner on the ITV show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Whether or not the Ingrams cheated propels the story as Graham presents the case for and against, touching on wider popular cultural references and examining the power structures in UK society that have become a key theme of his work.

And this is not the first time that ideas of cheating on TV gameshows has captured the popular imagination, and been immortalised in art. In 1994, Robert Redford directed Quiz Show a film about a famous scandal in America in which numerous contestants testified that they had been given the answers in advance in order to prolong their tenure on the show. Uncovering an incredible scandal touching on class and religious divides that eventually implicating the academic Van Doren family whose rising star Charlie confessed to cheating at the behest of the producers, this fascinating film is a clear ancestor of Graham’s new play, examining similar notions of fraud and mass-public deception that are at the heart of fairness and televisual transparency.

As previously noted, Graham’s success as a playwriter is the result of how carefully his work is constructed, and the confidence it gives the audience knowing that he is entirely in charge of his material, that wherever the story is going, you’re in safe hands. The way Graham choses to put a show together is often unexpected, mixing timelines, perspectives and theatre forms to create non-linear storytelling, but he always succeeds in being both entertaining and encouraging the audience to rethink established positions, leaving the auditorium with a more nuanced understanding of what they have seen.

Labour of Love took a reverse and then a forward chronological approach to opening-up the history of the Labour Party in the last 30 years, while Ink had a more straight-forwardly dramatic approach but mixed in choreographed movement and montage sequences to reinforce the populist entertainment aspect of his examination of the The Sun’s first year under Rupert Murdoch. Quiz is pitched somewhere between the two, merging various time periods including the build-up to Charles Ingram’s appearance, the days filming Who Wants to be a Millionaire, and the subsequent court case, played in interlocking scenes which present the case for the prosecution in Act One, and, after the interval, the case for the defence.

Staged in the ¾ round, or more appropriately in the ¾ hexagon of the Minerva, set designer Robert Jones has created a multi-purpose circular central platform holding a neon cube in which much of the action takes place. Around the edge of the flooring there is a ring of changeable lighting which is used to suggest everything from the television studio to some cunningly implied grass during an unexpected lawn mowing scene.

It’s a layered story that opens with a pub quiz, setting the scene for the world of obsessive competition fanatics, laying a direct trail from that bar to the gameshow hot-seat. Graham wants us to understand that this is a world where the ability to memorise and recall knowledge is a source of pride for its participants. Consequently, a mini-industry of test books, gadgets and chat groups has grown-up around the individual’s desire to win, helping them to improve their chances of making it onto their desired programme.

The audience is hooked into this by participating in four pub quiz rounds during the first half of the show to understand why the characters have this particular desire to succeed. And it is here that Graham overtly links Tecwen Whittock, the man believed to have used his cough to help Charles Ingram, to Adrian Pollock and his sister Diana Ingram, dramatizing both their earlier appearance on the show, and ultimately to Charles’s own infamous million-pound success.

Each scene in Act One is another nail in the Ingram’s coffin, even the wonderful history of quiz shows montage that gives Keir Charles a chance to perform as Des O’ Conner, Jim Bowen on Bullseye, Leslie Crowther on the Price is Right and briefly on video as Bruce Forsyth on Play Your Card Right, as well as a reasonable impression of Chris Tarrant, is part of the argument about the growing status of quizzes on British television in the years leading up to the broadcast of Millionaire, and why it mattered so much to those who went on again and again.

As the audience uses their keypad to decide whether the Ingrams were guilty or not before the interval, it seems there’s nothing left to say. But as with Labour of Love, having shown you one version of events, in Act Two Graham realigns your thinking with a whole new angle on the evidence -and this is why construction is the key to Graham’s success, leading the audience confidently down one path only to force us to retrace our steps, where it all suddenly looks very different – the work of a master storyteller.

At the heart of the story is Gavin Spokes’s performance as Charles Ingram, a suitably baffled and bumbling military man, completely out of his depth in either scenario. While occasionally a little stagey in the wrong places – in scenes at home with Diana, played by Stephanie Street, rather than on the gameshow where Ingram claimed to be playing-up the drama – Spokes does keep the audience guessing, never quite confirming or denying Ingram’s guilt, letting the various debates twist our interpretation of his performance instead.

Quiz fanatic Diana is given a no nonsense determination by Street and, like her stage husband, it’s difficult to decide whether she is the Lady Macbeth of an elaborate fraud or just a super-fan who, along with her equally obsessive brother Adrian Pollock (played by Henry Pettigrew who lends distinction to multiple roles), were cast as the villains for being too successful.  In what is a busy supporting cast playing at least four parts each, Keir Charles has the most fun mimicking the memorable game show hosts of the era, while successfully capturing the mannerisms and intonation of Chris Tarrant over the course of several scenes, while Sarah Woodward as defence lawyer Sonia Woodley is crucial in helping the audience reconsider the facts in the second half, not to mention having a marvellous cameo as Hilda Ogden.

2017 has been an exceptional year for new writing, especially in political theatre, and with three new plays since June, Graham has been at the forefront of this new wave. This goes a step beyond merely dramatizing key events but a genuine attempt to understand where power lies in society, and to rethink our concepts of truth, justice and appearance. The distorting role of the media directly links Quiz to the National Theatre’s version of Network with both asking important questions about the boundary between truth and entertainment in the television age and whether we can really trust what we see. There is one thing you can rely on however and that’s the value of heading to Chichester to catch this wonderful new play, while London theatre managers start a bidding war; they just need to ask the audience for the answer to the jackpot question – will Quiz earn itself a transfer – yes (cough, cough) or no?

Quiz is at the Minerva Theatre in Chichester until 9 December. Tickets start at £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturcalcap1


Labour of Love – Noel Coward Theatre

Martin Freeman, Tamsin Grieg and James Graham, Labour of Love

More than 90 years since its first ever period in government, the Labour Party has spent the majority of its existence in opposition and riven by immobilising debates about whether it should honour its left-wing roots or move towards a central populist position. Such intricate divisions are not the preserve of Labour of course – The Conservative Party has torn itself to pieces arguing about Europe on many occasions – but within Labour a fascinating clash of fundamental idealism is a constant feature, and one which writer James Graham looks to explore in his insightful new play Labour of Love.

In a reasonably short time, Graham has become one of our leading proponents of political theatre, commenting not just on the Parliamentary system in plays like This House, but also the wider Establishment in his huge 2017 hit Ink about the early days of The Sun, as well as the forthcoming examination of the television media in Quiz. Graham’s work focuses on crucial moments of change and the ripples that these cause decades later. It always starts with an institution holding power in a present-day scenario and attempts to unpick the various strands that brought about this influence, whether it be the ongoing power of tabloid journalism, or in the case of Labour of Love, understanding the anatomy of a major political party whose current resurgence could be about to break a century-old cycle of behaviour.

The play is set in a safe Labour constituency, examining 27 years of party history using a reverse chronology structure in Act One to take MP David Lyons (Martin Freeman) from results night in the 2017 General Election, right back to his very first win in 1990, with pit stops in 2010 and 2003, while Act Two starts in 1990 and takes the audience right back up to date. And while that sounds rather dry, at the play’s heart is the developing relationship between the moderniser Lyons, a protege of the Blair years, and his election agent Jean (Tamsin Greig), wife of the hard-line leftist MP he replaced.

At the start of the play David and Jean have the exasperated affection of years spent sparring with one another, her keeping the show on the road and challenging his abandonment of party tradition, while David has enjoyed the rollercoaster of Westminster while trying to convince his constituents that being electable and being Labour are not mutually exclusive. Why these people have become who they are and the exact status of their combative relationship is slowly revealed as we travel back to their beginning in an attempt to understand what their future will be.

One of the things that distinguishes Graham as a writer is his ability to construct plays that maintain their narrative drive, drawing the audience into the humanity of his characters while still making significant observations about where power lies in our society. But rather than hammering home his message, Graham utilises a light touch approach to the politics, wrapping it in humour and careful character development.

Construction may seem a basic skill for a playwright, but it’s not as straightforward as it sounds, and Graham is a master at controlling an unfolding story and creating interlocking scenarios that work together to form a complete picture. Ink used a series of overlapping scenes, music segments and abstract elements to conjure up the world of 60s journalism, while in Labour of Love, Graham has four semi-independent stopping points, each with their own mini-plot and cliff-hanger, resolved in the second half, so by the end these fleeting visits to each decisive moment in Labour’s recent history have also satisfactorily coloured-in the 27 years of Jean and David’s lives as well.

Normally you need only turn on the news to see the kind of comical and ridiculous behaviour from our politicians you would never believe if it was on stage, but Labour of Love mines a long satirical traditional of holding our leading officers to account. It is a political farce with plenty of humour and packed-full of audience-pleasing and sharply observed references to pop culture that litter the three decades in which the play takes place. Some of the high points include a complaint from Jean that northerners always get the rough end of the deal, ‘it’s like Game of Thrones’ she quips, and waiting for a fax machine to reveal if David has betrayed the local party in the leadership election. The carefully chosen music from D:Ream’s ‘Thing Will Only Get Better’ to Britney Spears ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’ will  also take you right back in an instant to the four eras created on stage.

Supporting this is Lee Newby’s purposefully drab constituency office set which uses the stage revolve to move between decades. It’s soulless and even in 1990 well worn, grey floor tiles and the same drawer that doesn’t open properly for 30 years. But it’s in the tiny details that the changing period comes to life as fax machines give way to computers with email, boxy televisions with actual Teletext (leading to one audience cry of “bring it back”) become flatscreens, and crucially the image of the then Labour leader changes, framed on the office wall with Jeremy Corbyn looking quite regal in his 2017 photograph – an image clearly chosen with particular care to emphasis his role in debate between left and centre that continues to divide his party while whipping up a popular acclaim.

At the centre of all of this is Tamsin Greig playing Jean Whittaker, replacing Sarah Lancashire at relatively short-notice which led to a week of previews being cut. None of the backstage drama is evident though, and Grieg makes it feel like the part was written especially for her. Old Labour to the core, Jean is both a thorn in David’s side and the person keeping him afloat, never missing an opportunity to score a point. But across the years we see she develops a respect and care for him that becomes surprisingly touching, and under the prickly and deeply sarcastic demeanour, Grieg reveals Jean’s deeper emotions emerging from a lifetime of disappointments and limited opportunities for herself as she serves a succession of argumentative men.

Jean is also passionately devoted to the needs of the community, rather than the demands of the central party, which leads to much of the division with David, giving her a combative shell. But she is also the link between the MP and the grass roots support which she navigates with skill, and Grieg offers a picture of an incredibly smart woman, easily outwitting the smug Londoners, and teaching them the difference between party power and electoral support.

Martin Freeman’s David is actually a genuinely nice man, hugely out of his depth in the safe seat he’s parachuted into. New Labour through and through he’s passionate about making his party electable and frequently campaigns for the compromises needed to win and keep power in Number 10. The pull of local and national politics, is embodied in Freeman’s performance as David struggles to balance the growing loyalty he develops to the people he represents and his greater ambitions for personal authority and a Cabinet role.

As the years go by – or in this case backwards and then forwards again – Freeman shows how the optimism of David’s first election fades over the years, becoming not quite jaded but more aware of the cyclical nature of power and how quickly new initiatives fail, with pointed reference to the closure of a mine that became a data centre which itself became redundant. Freeman’s David is someone trying to do his best in the wrong constituency, torn between an expectant future and the grim reality of brief influence and then obscurity. ‘I’d better brush up on my Paso Doble’ he remarks as the wrong kind of glittery future beckons.

Arguably the supporting characters are little more than sketched, but Rachael Stirling has lots of fun playing David’s snobby London wife Elizabeth, who sneers at his lack of ambition, frequently going head-to-head with Jean and losing. Susan Wokoma and Dickon Tyrrell add texture as grassroots party members who clash with David, but help to create the context against which the two leads exist.

With press night tomorrow, the flow and comic timing – already working well – can only tighten as the run continues. Perhaps it doesn’t quite have the impact of Ink, one of those rare plays that just captures the imagination, the extra magic that separates the 5-star show from the plethora of 4s, but Labour of Love remains a well-constructed and perceptive comedy that explains why political parties so often tear themselves apart. James Graham is fast establishing himself as our leading political playwright, and Labour of Love is full of insight, deep research and with Graham’s distinctive ability to entertainingly interpret post-war history.

Labour of Love is at the Noel Coward Theatre until 2 December 2017. Tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culuralcap1


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