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Posts Tagged ‘James Graham’

What a great idea to create a modern stage version of Charles Dickens’ Sketches by Boz, his short pieces for newspapers which preceded his first novel. Another great idea to get star playwright James Graham to nurture eight young writers, each to contribute a story to accompany his four, and to stage it at Wilton’s, a very Dickensian venue which was around when the original sketches appeared.

The twelve tales cover a diverse range of subjects, from a troubled relationship played out during a Mayoral election, through the life of a Scottish drag queen to a sophisticated crime and the sighting of a rare songbird. Instead of telling them sequentially, though, they are interwoven, and this is where it went wrong for me, as it made for a fragmentary evening of uneven writing.

The five performers do very well, switching characters and stories with the turn of a head or the donning of a hat, and Thomas Hescott’s staging, on a raised platform which dealt well with Wilton’s usually challenging sight-lines, using minimal props but excellent projections by Daniel Denton, served them well enough. In the end though, the constant switching between stories inhibited your enjoyment of them and eventually became irritating.

An ambitious and clever idea that sadly didn’t live up to its promise.

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This is the third new play by the prolific James Graham in four months, the other two (Ink & Labour of Love) still running in the West End, perhaps soon to become a trio with this. He’s cornered the market with recent history plays and what I love most about his work is that he recalls history you’ve lived through, illuminates and educates, but never forgets to entertain.

This has stylistic similarities with his underrated Monster Raving Loony, where he used British comedy shows to tell the story of that indispensable political party led by Screaming Lord Sutch. Here, the focus is on the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire cheating scandal through the history of quiz shows, with examinations of the psychology of, and motivation for, participation and that very British obsession with fairness and equality along the way. It’s got the same playfulness (an audience quiz, with prizes, voting and even participation) and sense of fun, enhancing the storytelling and guaranteeing the entertainment.

We move from the creation of ITV, it’s earlier game shows and the pitch for this one to the entry and preparation by a network of very determined and thorough individuals to the show itself and the court case which followed, which itself became a bit of an entertainment in a life-imitates-art sort of way. It was fascinating on so many levels and always entertaining. Robert Jones’ terrific set takes you right into the TV studio, but also becomes the court and other locations. Lights, music, live projection and recorded video all add to the authenticity.

Gavin Spokes and Stephanie Street are excellent as the Ingram’s, the couple at the centre of the storm that became an (untelevised) courtroom drama and international media circus. Nine other actors play over forty roles between them, from three to seven each. Keir Charles gets to be Chris Tarrant, Des O’Connor, Jim Bowen, Leslie Crowther and Bruce Forsyth in quick succession; five terrific turns! We even get a Corrie cameo to illustrate a question, with Sarah Woodward and Nadia Albina bringing the house down as Hilda Ogden & Elsie Tanner respectively. The audience voted on their guilt twice and the verdict changed from one to the other, as it had in the vast majority of previous shows (but not me!)

Daniel Evans’ production zips along, captivates and entertains, but you also get an intriguing story within a frame of recent social history, this time popular culture. The return trip to Chichester was twice as long as the play, but it was well worth it.

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Over 150 shows were candidates for my four award-less awards, with Best New Play the difficult category this year, so lets start with that.

BEST NEW PLAY – LOVE – National Theatre

Over a third of the sixty-five candidates were worthy of consideration, which makes 2016 both prolific and high quality in terms of new plays. Hampstead had a particularly good year with Rabbit Hole, Lawrence After Arabia, Labyrinth and the epic iHo all in contention. The Almeida gave us three, with Boy leading the trio that included They Drink It In The Congo and Oil because of its importance and impact. The Globe’s two Kneehigh shows – 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips on the main stage & The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse – both delighted. Two more Florian Zeller plays, The Mother and The Truth, followed The Father and proved he’s a real talent to watch. The visit of Isango again, this time with play with songs A Man of Good Hope was a treat.

The Arcola gave us Kenny Morgan, which showed us the inspiration for Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea, the Donmar a fascinating One Night in Miami, the Orange Tree hosted the superbly written The Rolling Stone and Dante or Die’s site-specific Handle With Care had an epic sweep in its self storage unit setting. Two comedies shone above all others – James Graham’s Monster Raving Loony and Mischief Theatre’s The Comedy About A Bank Robbery, the only West End non-subsidised contender! The Royal Court provided the visceral Yen and The Children, my runner-up, another fine play by Lucy Kirkwood whose Chimerica was my 2013 winner. Of the National’s three, The Flick and Sunset at the Villa Thalia came earlier in the year, but it was LOVE at the end which made me sad and angry but blew me away with more emotional power than any other. Important theatre which I desperately hope many more people will see.

BEST REVIVAL / ADAPTATION of a play – The Young Vic’s YERMA & the National’s LES BLANCS

I’ve added ‘adaptation’ as a few steered a long way from their source, and Les Blancs could be considered a new play, but it’s just new to us.

Though I saw forty-four in this category, less than a quarter made the short-list. The best Shakespeare revival was undoubtedly A Winter’s Tale at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. As well as Les Blancs, the National staged excellent revivals of The Deep Blue Sea and Amadeus, the Donmar chipped in with the thoroughly entertaining comedy Welcome Home, Captain Fox and in Kingston The Rose revived Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, probably the best use ever of this difficult space. Beyond that I was struggling, except to choose between the two winners, which I found I couldn’t and shouldn’t do.

BEST NEW MUSICAL – GROUNDHOG DAY – Old Vic Theatre

Has a shortlist ever been so short? Only twenty contenders but only three in contention. The Toxic Avenger at Southwark Playhouse was great fun and the NYMT’s Brass visiting Hackney Empire hugely impressive, but it was achieving the seemingly impossible by turning Groundhog Day into a hugely successful musical than won the day, though it was sad to see it head stateside, presumably in pursuit of greater commercial gain, after such a short run. I know it will be back, but that doesn’t make me feel any better about a British theatrical institution and a whole load of British talent being used as a Broadway try-out. 

BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL – HALF A SIXPENCE – Chichester Festival Theatre / Novello Theatre

Fifty percent more revivals (twenty-nine) than new musicals is a lower proportion than usual, but a winner has never been clearer. 

The Menier gave us a transatlantic transfer of a great Into the Woods and what may prove to be the definitive She Loves Me, but both the Union and Walthamstow’s Rose & Crown provided twice as many quality revivals, with the latter successfully climbing higher peaks with more challenging shows for a small space – Bernstein’s Wonderful Town, Out of This World, Babes in Arms and Howard Goodall’s The Kissing Dance. The Union’s contributions included The Fix and Children of Eden and a trio of cheeky, fun nights with Bad Girls, Moby Dick and Soho Cinders. The Southerland-Tarento partnership provided a brilliant revival of Ragtime and the welcome European premiere, and superb production of, Rogers & Hammerstein’s Allegro (which was also too old for me to categorise as ‘New’). A little gem came and went ever so quickly when the Finborough revived Alan Price’s lovely Andy Capp in it’s Sun-Tue slot on the set of another play. BRING IT BACK! Despite all this fringe and off west end quality, it was the Chichester transfer of an old warhorse with a new book, new songs, thrilling staging, stunning choreography, gorgeous design and terrific ensemble which propelled itself to the top of this category.

That’s it for another year, then. Homelessness, childlessness, timelessness, colonialism and love amongst the working class. There’s a theme there somewhere…..

 

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Well I’ve never had a goodie bag on my theatre seat before…..or wore a party hat…..or played bingo and participated in a raffle…..or played along with a tin mug and wooden spoon…..or been brought a nice cup of tea to my seat….. or laughed as much as I did on Friday……

James Graham’s brilliant idea for his biographical play about Screaming Lord Sutch is to play each scene as a comic routine (Pete & Dud, Morecombe & Wise, Tommy Cooper….) or a sit-com (Steptoe & Son, ‘Allo! ‘Allo!, Hi-de-Hi!….) or a sketch show (TW3, The Frost Report, Monty Python…..) or a comedy film franchise (Confessions of…..Carry On…..) from British culture, and the idea, and the staging by Simon Stokes, is inspired. It so suits the subject matter, one of Britain’s greatest eccentrics, but it also manages to get under the skin of its subject, his loneliness and his tragic demise.

We’re at a party in a social club in his home town of Harrow and we follow his story from teenage years through to his premature death, 41 general elections / bi-elections later, from his first party-less one in Stratford after the Profumo affair in 1963 through contests with Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher to his final stand in 1997, now leader of the Monster Raving Loony Party. In addition to his political life, it covers both his performing career and personal life.

He captured the heart of the nation because he sent up politicians and the political system as it so often deserves. Oh I so wish he was still with us to inject some of this into the current horrendous, scary referendum. A character like Sutch could only exist in the Britain of the last forty years of the 20th century, not before, not after, not anywhere else, and we’re a poorer country without him.

The superbly talented cast of six – Samuel James (Sutch), Joe Alessi, Joanna Brookes, Jack Brown, Vivienne Achaempong and musician Tom Attwood – play him, politicians and returning officers and people in his personal life, as well as a multitude of characters from just about every classic British comic creation over a forty year period. I’m not sure how they keep it all together, with some uncanny impersonations and an anarchic quality that sweeps you up in warmth and nostalgia. I was having the time of my life.

I cannot recommend this lovely show enough in its final week at Soho Theatre. Completely unmissable.

 

 

 

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Playwright James Graham wrote a brilliant play about the flip-flopping between Labour & the Tories in the 70s even though he was born after the events in the play and here he is in the same period reminding us of the seemingly long forgotten Angry Brigade – home-grown middle class anarchist terrorists. I’m not sure why he’s obsessed with this period, but I’m enjoying the products of it.

It’s actually a play in two very different parts which he says in the script can be played either way around or even simultaneously or, as he ends his notes in an appropriately anarchic tone, ‘perhaps just do what you like’. In this production The Branch is the first more comedic half set in Scotland Yard where a new unit has been set up within Special Branch for a unified approach to clearly connected terrorist acts. The police are a bit clumsy, but they get there in the end. In the second more anarchic half, The Brigade, we’re in the terrorists’ house learning about their pasts, their motivations and their intentions whilst the crimes are being committed. The style of each half reflects the world in which it is set. At the end of the first half you do wonder where its going, but it leaves you satisfied in the end. James Grieve’s staging keeps you on your toes with its unpredictability.

Felix Scott plays the less comic cop Smith and turns up unrecognisable as terrorist John in the second half; both great performances. I’m thoroughly enjoying following Harry Melling’s grow into a fine young actor and here he’s got two large and four small roles to get his teeth into. Again, the contrast between the hapless Commander and the earnest Jim is great. Patsy Ferran and Scarlett Alice Johnson do well in what are effectively supporting roles in the first half and come into their own as equals in the second.

I was at college when these real life events were played out and I’m struggling to understand my lack of memory, but I’m grateful to James Graham for filling in the gaps with a play that resonates strikingly in our current troubled times.

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This wasn’t at all what I was expecting from James Graham, whose last play This House was a brilliant and funny examination of mid-70s British politics. It’s a combination of verbatim theatre & illustrated lecture rather than a play, which is difficult to talk about without spoiling it.

Graham has clearly done his research; in fact, he’s the central character of the piece, relating his experiences during the research and bringing onto the stage the people he interviewed (played by actors) to present their evidence. The director also appears as a character, so we get a peep at their interactions during the development of the piece. You learn a lot about how exposed we are with the internet & WiFi, social media and loyalty cards sharing so much of our lives. Not all of this was new to me, but a lot was and some of it shook me.

It’s inventively staged, with the back wall becoming a giant screen for recorded and live footage & graphics and there’s a ‘researcher’ live on stage. There’s much audience participation, requiring you to keep your smartphones on in silent mode. There was at least one moment when I regretted my own too willing participation! The first half is rather clever, making its points lightly but effectively, but it turns more serious in the second half, which works less well. At 2h45m, it needs some cuts and overall more structure, but its still in preview so there’s time to deal with this. it’s well cast with Joshua McGuire an excellent ‘writer’ and a handful of other actors playing everyone else – and there’s a lot of them.

Despite its faults, I learnt a fair bit and was entertained for much of the time. I suspect it will tighten up by press night. Whatever else, the subject is overdue for proper examination and this theatrical presentation brings a lot into the open. Less than 36 hours later and I appear to have developed more scepticism and caution and I may well change my ways as a result!

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What an enthralling and entertaining evening in the theatre. Who’d have thought the period 1974-79 in British politics would make such a good play – and much more illuminating than living through it! From possibly the worst seat in the house on the upper level looking down, that’s praise indeed.

Designer Rae Smith has built a replica of the House of Commons in the Cottesloe Theatre. The pit audience sit on the green benches on either side, whilst most of the play takes place in the respective whips offices created from a few tables and chairs on the floor of the house. The Speaker’s chair is at one end, as it should be, and there’s a giant projection of the face of Big Ben high at the same end. They’ve even put the gargoyles of Westminster Hall on the upper level railings.

This was the last period when we had parties with slim or non-existent majorities leading to minority governments reliant on bargaining with ‘the odds and sods’ or more formal arrangements like the Lib-Lab Pact. The premiership moved from Wilson to Heath to Callaghan with Thatcher rising to lead her party and become PM as the play ends.

James Graham’s play focuses on these bargaining processes, together with the party discipline necessary to ensure everyone turned out, the process of ‘pairing’ whereby the absence of one member would be matched with the non-attendance of another in the opposing party and the absurd lengths they had to go to, bringing in the sick and infirm and propping up the drunk.

It’s surprisingly thrilling stuff and often very funny too. Jeremy Herrin’s staging is brilliant (with an occasional nod to Enron’s movement and music). I was gripped for the duration as I laughed, gasped and nodded in recognition. It somehow showed the best and worst of our parliamentary system.

The Labour whips are brilliantly played by Vincent Franklin, Philip Glenister, Richard Ridings and Lauren O’Neill (plus Phil Daniels in the first half) and the Tory whips equally well by Julian Wadham, Charles Edwards and Ed Hughes and there’s a great supporting company of eight who between them play 29 other characters, mostly MP’s, requiring quick change accents as well as costumes (though the Welsh was South East when it should have been South West!). I loved the way the MP’s were referred to by their parliamentary seat rather than their names, as they are in ‘real life’.

The timing of this play, during the next period of minority government (albeit this time a proper coalition), is impeccable and despite the period clothes, dodgy wigs and dated behaviour (Philip Glenister is well-practiced at this after TV’s 70’s Life on Mars and 80’s Ashes to Ashes) it’s relevant and fresh. I adored it.

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