James Graham Plays: 2
The second collection of James Graham’s plays continues to demonstrate his interest in politics, although the subject is always viewed from unusual angles.
As regular followers of British Theatre Guide will know, this critic is enough of a fan of This House to have seen the play three times, most recently on its West End transfer.
Even so, reading the script gives time to appreciate the quality of the writing and understand some deeper nuances that can pass one by on stage.
The play follows the ups and downs of the Labour Government of Harold Wilson and then James Callaghan in the period from 1974 to 1979.
The turmoil was immense, since there is no overall parliamentary majority in the first part of the period and, at its peak, the Government had only a handful of seats more than the combined opposition.
As a result, it was reliant on the efforts of its Chief Whips and particularly the deputy, Walter Harrison, to win vote after vote in extremis. On the other side of the Parliamentary divide, the Conservatives were doing their damnedest to unseat the government and eventually did so but it took a change of leader and 4½ years before the future Lady Thatcher eventually did the trick.
On her side, the key mover and shaker behind the scenes was Jack Weatherill, a canny but generous whip who fought innumerable intellectual battles with his opposite number, Harrison.
Where James Graham shows remarkable originality is in portraying the parliamentary shenanigans from the perspective of the whips’ offices rather than following the big names, none of whom appears in person at any point during the play.
This really is a first-class piece of drama, combining comedy, action and pathos to great effect.
The Angry Brigade
Older readers may be familiar with the activities of The Angry Brigade in the early 1970s.
This was a group of well-educated, generally middle-class British anarchists, two of whom actually went to Cambridge. Like The Red Brigades and Baader-Meinhof on mainland Europe, their goal was to overthrow the establishment and replace it with something that is never entirely clear.
A play that might otherwise sound like pure invention is actually closely based on fact and portrays the anarchic quartet as they cause havoc with Londoners and deftly escape arrest.
This is a play of two halves and, according to the introductory note, can be played either way around. As printed, the first half is a rather comical depiction of the efforts of a young police team to track down and bring to justice the bombers.
The other half focuses on the members of The Angry Brigade themselves. What comes through is their sometimes slightly uncertain desire to escape the fetters of generally accepted behaviour and, at the same time, cause chaos.
However, in James Graham’s eyes there is far more to these people than mere destructive fervour. He ensures that they are given an opportunity to develop as characters and make their own cases, although these can be contradictory.
In the run-up to the 2015 General Election, James Graham, together with Josie Rourke at the Donmar, put together a superb cast including the likes of Dame Judi Dench to mirror the events taking place on the big night.
From 8:30 till 10 o’clock, when polling stations closed prior to a result that none of the commentators had been predicting, events in the real world were reflected on stage.
The action takes place in a polling station in Lambeth, where a fine cross-section of Londoners flows in and out providing rather more drama than one might have expected in real life. Indeed, this could be the ultimate electoral soap opera with family division, scandal, alcoholic excess, generational discord and so much more.
Monster Raving Loony
Monster Raving Loony is an affectionate, unlikely portrait of pop star turned politician Screaming Lord Sutch.
This was a man whose main contribution to politics was to provide innumerable deposits that helped to fund future elections, since he and his party colleagues were almost certain to forego them whenever they stood.
Rather than present a traditional biographical portrait, Graham has chosen to make Sutch a kind of cartoon character accompanied by popular comic songs.
While the last scenes show him in a relatively straightforward manner, far more of the play takes out of the real world and placed in sketches mirroring a wide variety of popular genres.
As such (pun not originally intended), his Lordship (by deed poll) gets involved in a pantomime, a children’s cartoon, a farce and a series of British TV comedies from the middle of the last century including encounters with the likes of Morecambe and Wise, Alan Partridge, Absolutely Fabulous and even Del and Rodney.
As a result, Monster Raving Loony can struggle a little for focus but, at its best, is amusing and does get under the skin of one of Britain’s most eccentric political characters.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher