Tag Archives: James Graham

“Ink” at the Almeida Theatre

James Graham has made a strong reputation for himself with plays about politics. While similarly concerned with power, his new work has a broader subject matter and relates the genesis and meteoric rise of The Sun newspaper.

Graham’s nose for a good story is as fine-tuned as any journalist’s. The purchase of an ailing broadsheet by Australian outsider Rupert Murdoch, and the hiring of neglected hack Larry Lamb to run it, take on a mythic quality. These are great roles for strong actors: Bertie Carvel is the ruthless, on-the-up tycoon, while Richard Coyle is the editor whose doubts and determination both mount as he chases sales figures.

The triangle between Murdoch, Lamb and the latter’s former mentor and now rival on The Daily Mirror, Hugh Cudlipp, might have been developed further. There’s an excellent performance from David Schofield as the crusading lefty whose paper aims to improve its readers. An idealistic fourth estate is where politics comes to the fore in Ink and, surprisingly, the play’s very few ponderous moments come from this elision.

Director Rupert Goold stages the recruitment of staff at the new paper with a cabaret feel: jolly, anti-establishment, with 1960s cool. And Goold handles the play’s darker territory just as well, with a kidnapping and the launch of The Sun’s infamous topless models: a scenario that leads to strong performances from Sophie Stanton as the paper’s women’s editor, and Pearl Chanda as Stephanie Rahn, the first ‘Page 3’ girl.

Newspapers mark a generational divide – the young really don’t read them. Graham’s skill and research bridge the age gap. I wondered if we needed a scene taking us through the printing process (akin to his excellent précis of parliamentary procedure in This House) but, yes, of course we do! With a touch of nostalgia, reflecting several characters’ romantic notions of Fleet Street, an arcane world of machismo and lots of cigarette smoke is opened. Hindsight raises smiles and big questions about media manipulation.

The result of Graham’s fun groundwork is a delicious surprise – a depiction of Murdoch that shows intelligence and courage. With a little retrofitting, Murdoch is cast as a business disruptor and credited with the idea of user-generated content. Neither role is that convincing but the ideas intrigue. Murdoch’s drive, so perfectly embodied in Carvel’s performance, comes from his wish to challenge and change – recasting an often-demonised figure as a rebel with a cause.

Until 5 August 2017

www.almeida.co.uk

Photo by Marc Brenner

“This House” at the Garrick Theatre

James Graham’s play isn’t your regular political drama. Based on the flailing minority Labour government of the late 1970s, it looks at the mechanics of Parliament – the back-room antics of the whips, who make sure MPs vote. There are few names or issues that people will remember. And, instead of Machiavellian power brokers, the characters are misfit eccentrics, working hard in grubby anterooms. So the play’s transfer from the National Theatre’s Cottesloe, to the larger Olivier, and now, after a long wait, the West End, is a triumph for the young playwright, and his intelligent funny writing, which has warmed the critics’ hearts.

Honours are shared with director Jeremy Herrin, who handles the large cast impeccably. Nearly all the actors play more than one MP, each larger than life, and the sense of a building at work is conveyed with infectious energy. Counting the ‘ayes’ and ‘noes’ becomes nail-biting, while efforts to bribe or cajole coalitions are gripping. Add Rae Smith’s replica House of Commons set, with its onstage seating and bar, and you have a sense of fun that complements Graham’s great jokes.

Steffan Rhodri and Nathaniel Parker
Steffan Rhodri and Nathaniel Parker

This House is a brilliantly ambitious ensemble piece. Phil Daniels and Malcolm Sinclair are the chief whips, giving blissfully effortless performances. I probably don’t need to tell you they represent the Labour and Conservative parties, respectively. Praise, too, for Nathaniel Parker and Steffan Rhodri, playing their deputies, each with their own agenda and sombre moments that add humanity to the comedy. Much is made of the differences between the parties, with Labour louts calling their opponents the “aristotwats’, which seems to have struck Graham as particularly fascinating. If some jokes land heavily, relying on hindsight, they are still funny.

The research undertaken for the play is impressive, informative and conveys Parliament’s peculiar charm. Even better, Graham has a good stab at being impartial. How far he succeeds possibly depends on your own voting habits – but the stance of making a play about politics apolitical is dealt with well. That those in charge act like children is a point itself, although Graham is too good to fall for simplicity, showing passion and conviction from MPs of both parties. But the propensity to treat government like a game is clear and used to make brilliant drama.

Until 25 February 2017

www.thishouseplay.com

Photos by Johan Persson

“Monster Raving Loony” at the Soho Theatre

If you want to classify contemporary playwrights, James Graham is the one that writes about politics. His new play, via the Theatre Royal Plymouth, is engaging and imaginative. Taking as its subject David Screaming Lord Sutch and his political party, which gives the play its name, biography is combined with politics, cultural history and inspiring touches of English eccentricity. The masterstroke is to tell Sutch’s story via famous comedians. It’s a bonkers technique that’s appropriate for its subject and it’s original, funny and brilliantly written.

So, Sutch’s mum is first a pantomime dame. Then, as mother and son plan to open a bric-a-brac shop, she becomes Albert Steptoe. Interviews are conducted on Just A Minute and a visit to the doctor is a Monty Python sketch. It’s quite a carry on – yes that’s there too –  an encyclopaedic journey through comedy masters. In each sketch, Graham is up to the job – he could have written for any of these greats. And it’s all manipulated to tell Sutch’s life story. Wow.

Joseph Alessi & Samuel James Photo Credit Steve Tanner
Joseph Alessi & Samuel James

A demanding play for actors, the impersonations are non-stop and the delivery breathtaking. Samuel James gives a stellar performance as the lead, joined by four others, alongside Tom Attwood whose role as The Musician roots the play. Highlights may depend on your comedy preferences: Joe Alessi’s Alf Garnett is perfection, and how quickly Jack Brown embodies Kenneth Williams and Julian Clary cannot fail to impress. Tellingly reflecting the sexism of the time, the women have fewer pickings. But Vivienne Acheampong does well in a bed-hopping farce and Joanna Brookes is stunning in the male roles she adopts.

James’ performance is the one that requires real depth. Not that this stops a great Frank Spencer impersonation. But there is Sutch’s struggle here as well. Focusing on this fascinating figure is a task slightly at odds with such a high-energy show. Prone to depression and trapped in a public persona, his story gets a little lost despite the skills of director Simon Stokes. Sutch’s suicide seems too much for the play to handle.

Stokes shows fine work when it comes to audience participation – it’s cunning for a director to control this. Such planned fun is always a pet hate (joining in with songs makes my toes curl). But the raffle tickets and bingo cards waiting on seats have a point here that makes them (almost) worthwhile. Another bold stroke from Graham, games typify his novelty and magpie humour in this damnably clever piece.

Until 18 June 2016

www.sohotheatre.com

Photos by Steve Tanner

“The Angry Brigade” at the Bush Theatre

Playwright James Graham continues his hugely successful engagement with politics by looking at the history of 1970s anarchist bombers, The Angry Brigade. The first act opens on a grim basement room in which four young coppers are secretly tasked with investigating the new phenomenon of homegrown terrorism. Parallels with current concerns aren’t forced, and the authorities’ efforts are often comic, as the police loosen their ties and discover pot in an attempt to understand this new breed of criminal. Harry Melling and Lizzy Watts excel with a variety of roles: police, victims and suspects. But the act belongs to Mark Arends as the impassioned young detective Smith, whose performance is perfectly attuned to the writing’s clever drollery.

Angry-123-2000x1331
Harry Melling and Pearl Chanda

After the humorous highs of the first act, the second act may slightly disappoint. Now with the Brigade, played by the same cast of four, the laughs are more guarded and there’s less period detail to poke fun at. Whatever you think of the politics, the ideas are presented (rather frighteningly) well. And the performances are full-bodied and intense, in particular those of Melling, again, and Pearl Chanda (as Anna Mendleson), whose fraught relationship provides a necessary emotional core to the section.

The temptation may be to see the play as split into two sides of the same story, both bravely sympathetic and boldly different. But The Angry Brigade is so meticulously written that parallels between the police and the protesters are developed with estimable precision. The crafted complexity of the script is highlighted by James Grieve’s direction and Lucy Osbornes’ design, which add a visceral, shock element to the dialogue – cast members slam filing cabinets to the ground to signify each bomb that goes off. No surprise, then, that this play feels like an explosive hit.

Until 13 June 2015

www.bushtheatre.co.uk

Photos by Manuel Harlan