He is one of the country’s leading playwrights of political drama. As This House arrives in Yorkshire, Nick Ahad talks to James Graham.
The 10.45 train from Leeds to London King’s Cross has been cancelled due to an electrical fault. The single reason I didn’t turn on a sixpence, but instead went to London via the standing room only train to Manchester? James Graham. I was due to meet the most successful playwright of a generation to talk about This House, the play that served as a launch pad for his remarkable career and is heading out on a first national tour coming to the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds and Sheffield Lyceum.
Late last year the highly regarded theatre critic Mark Shenton sent an email to members of the Critics’ Circle, having secured Graham as a guest speaker at the AGM. He wrote: “I can’t remember the last time a young living playwright had two plays running simultaneously in the West End.”
“Last year was extraordinary,” says 36-year-old Graham, who could pass for the undergraduate student that he was in the early 2000s at Hull University.
In the upstairs of the building where we meet, one of the biggest casts you will see is rehearsing This House and a whole phalanx of producers, PRs and assorted backstage odds and sods (to borrow a term used in the play) are floating around. Graham sits at the heart of this small army like a bemused teenager.
“I can’t really take credit for it all. As a writer, you start thinking about plays years in advance, and you don’t know when and where they are going to land.
“It’s the producers and theatres who trusted me and the audience who bought the tickets, who need to take credit.”
Pushed, he adds: “I know it sounds like the working class violin moment, but when my comprehensive school teachers came down and saw both plays and I saw how moved they were, that was a great moment, particularly because I wouldn’t have been doing it without them and their commitment to drama education in state schools. You get a moment to enjoy it but then it’s a case of another deadline and another play.”
For Graham, that is definitely the case.
In 2017 there were three major plays for theatre’s hottest property.
The first was Ink, which opened at London’s Almeida, before transferring to the Duke of York in the West End. Charting the mission of Rupert Murdoch in 1969 to set up the Sun newspaper, it starred Bertie Carvel and Richard Coyle and was at once a romp of a play about a group of mavericks setting out to create the country’s most popular newspaper.
Next came Labour of Love which also opened in September. Produced by one-time Sheffield Theatres supremo Michael Grandage, it went straight into the West End. Starring Martin Freeman and Tamsin Greig, it was Graham’s second five-star hit in a month. The play was set in Labour’s Northern heartlands and charted the party’s fortunes over a 25-year period.
Then came Quiz, produced at Chichester Festival Theatre in November, and based on the story of the “coughing major” Charles Ingram, who famously cheated on the television show Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Before the run was done, it was announced that it would transfer in April to the Noel Coward Theatre in the West End.
It’s quite the CV.
What is it like to command the West End and the talent Graham can pick and choose for his plays?
“You feel the responsibility when Dr Watson walks into your rehearsal room and you just think ‘I hope I’m not wasting his time,” says Graham, who seems genuinely overawed at having Freeman, the actor who played Sherlock Holmes’s foil, Bilbo Baggins and Hitchhiker’s Guide’s Arthur Dent, performing his lines.
He mentions Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson, who both saw Labour of Love, but immediately confesses that he is still out of his comfort zone among these famous faces.
“I **** my pants when I knew that Tony and Cherie Blair were in watching the play. Ditto with Rupert Murdoch,” he says.
The media magnate caught wind of Ink and, given that Bertie Carvel plays a 50-year-ago version of him, thought he’d pop in one night.
“I was thinking ‘Oh, Christ, is this my last day of freedom?’,” says Graham. He’s joking. The play is actually quite kind to the media baron. “It has always been really important to me to write plays where you tread that balance where you can speak truth to power, but where power feels comfortable to come and engage in the conversation. I make no apologies that the Sun play wasn’t quite as brutal as some people would have liked, but that’s because I wanted people who work for the Sun to sit next to people who read the Guardian and have a conversation.”
So, Murdoch came – although, it transpires, only after the play had been vetted for him.
“Jerry Hall came to see it a few weeks before, I suppose to check it out for him. When he did come, we met him afterwards and he met Bertie, who played him. I think he enjoyed it. He was brilliantly political in that I couldn’t work out what he thought.
“He was civil, polite. I asked him a few questions about the state of news at the moment. I remember thinking ‘I bet you saw Donald Trump this week and now you’re here. That’s weird.’ I couldn’t hide that my politics are not his politics, but I wasn’t going to stand there and have a row with him. I wasn’t going to change his mind about anything after a brief chat.”
The play that kicked off this remarkable period for Graham was This House. Premiered at the National Theatre in 2012, it looks behind the doors of the Palace of Westminster from the February 1974 election and the 1979 vote of no confidence in the government of James Callaghan. By all accounts, it was an incredible piece of theatre, transferring from the National to the West End.
“I’m so excited that this is touring. This play means the world to me, I’m so thrilled as a political writer that this play still gets an audience. Touring around the country is where this play feels like it belongs, because it really feels to me like a state of the nation play.”
Upstairs the company share the opening moments of the play and the power in seeing politics come so vividly to life is astounding.
“I hope it’s a play about where we were as a nation at the crossroads of the 1970s and a place that doesn’t depressingly feel that alien to where we are now,” says Graham. “I have a belief that political theatre should reach a mainstream audience. A generation ago, the idea was that political theatre was very worthy and you should probably go and see it because you had to, but you weren’t looking forward to it.
“I’ve always been determined to try and find a theatrical way into these plays and a human way. Plus, and I appreciate this is a controversial opinion, politicians are human beings and they were perhaps even more human back in the 1970s. That is when there was a bigger cross section of class at least, represented in the House. I wanted to look at that building, the customs and the rituals and the processes that are so oblique and so hidden and so unknowable. Really what I wanted to do was find a way, through theatre, of understanding how our seat of democracy works.”
And by all accounts, he did it.
This House, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, to March 10, 0113 213 7700, wyp.org.uk; Sheffield Lyceum, May 29 to June 2, 0114 249 600, sheffieldtheatres.co.uk