The Man

James Graham
Finborough Theatre
(2010)

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James Graham has a healthy attitude to the completion of his annual tax return. The young writer sees this as the start of a journey through the highways and byways of the last year, navigated by the random receipts that he has accumulated in shoeboxes.

In what is to all intents and purposes a 90 minute solo tour de force, an actor (Samuel Barnett at the performance under review) becomes Ben, a young London-based online educator from Chesterfield, completing his first ever tax return.

Rather than employing professional support, Ben starts to wrestle with the return himself, aided by Lizzy Watts as the unrepresentatively cheerful and helpful Lisa from HM Revenue and Customs in Wrexham.

It soon becomes clear that the tax return and slips of paper handed over from the audience are merely a launch pad for some touching story-telling. This gradually develops from angst over form-filling to stand-up comedy and then something much deeper.

The Man is a clever play that requires a talented actor, and Barnett (taking a night out from Women Beware Women at the National) is one of the best. He appears to select bills at random and weave stories around them using improvisational techniques.

In fact, so well is the story structure, that he may have a few conjuror's tricks up his sleeves so effectively does he get where he wants to be.

While the tax return and a good punch line head for one destination, there are others. For comedic effect, as we join this year-long journey, Ben relates his romantic misfortunes with Rachel and Amy showing the self-effacing wit perfected by the dreadfully insecure.

On the family front, the poor chap could hardly have had a worse annus horribilis. His parents split up and ancient grandpa provides the delayed inheritance to set up the new business but even that is tinged with sadness. Worst of all, it is slowly revealed that brother Josh, to whom our guide does not initially appear close, was Ben's twin and we discover his travails at the whim of a dreadful disease that could so easily have afflicted Ben too.

By the end of what started as a comedy routine about a form that we all love to hate, there will have been more than a few tears of grief joining those of laughter from earlier on.

James Graham is a talented writer with that rare ability to surprise while illuminating everyday experiences and expounding his own philosophy.

Whether you have ever filled in a tax return or not, The Man comes strongly recommended. After all, you must have lived and that is the only qualification required to enjoy this night out.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher