Art mirrors life in James Graham’s new comedy about Hull’s year as UK City of Culture

In rehearsals for James Graham's new play The Culture: A Farce in Two Acts
In rehearsals for James Graham's new play The Culture: A Farce in Two Acts
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Hull’s year as City of Culture is celebrated in a new comedy by James Graham. He spoke to Theatre correspondent Nick Ahad.

He’s on the hottest streak a British playwright has enjoyed in literally decades.

In December 2017 he had two brand new plays in the West End with another on the way, so James Graham is probably feeling fairly confident that his new work will be a hit.

Not so. All he knows is, it’s happening.

“You know that it’s in the brochure, that you’re going to have a new play on at a certain point and you’ve told people it’s a comedy, but you haven’t written a word of it,” says Graham.

When we speak Graham is on a train. That sentence could have probably applied at any point this year given that Graham’s plays have been on all over the country and he’s been writing new ones for theatres across the land. The one we’re talking about today is one for which Graham clearly has a bit of a soft spot.

The Culture: A Farce in Two Acts is the new James Graham play which will receive its world premiere at Hull Truck Theatre later this month.

It came as a bit of a surprise when the play was announced towards the end of last year. A James Graham play? In Hull? When was this discussed?

It transpires that it was with good reason we didn’t know about the play.

Back in 2016, when everyone assumed Hull being the UK’s City of Culture was going to turn out to be a huge punchline (not everyone: just people who didn’t know Hull), Mark Babych approached Graham.

Babych, the artistic director of Hull Truck, wondered if the most successful playwright of his generation and the most in demand playwright of the modern age might want to write something that was a kind of end of show celebration for City of Culture? Graham jumped at the chance.

The brief was both a dream and a nightmare. Graham could write whatever he wanted, it just had to celebrate Hull’s year in the spotlight and be ready to be performed by opening night, January 26, 2018.

“We wanted to keep it quiet, so Mark and myself approached the board of City of Culture. We were very clear that we wanted to create a piece of culture that would look at them and be a kind of piece of work that quantifies the effect of 2017 on the city,” says Graham.

He was also clear that it was going to be satirical and initially that he thought it might be a W1A-type piece of work with the very people he was going to be watching create the City of Culture the butt of the joke.

They were up for it.

“I was really lucky in that while most people experienced the City of Culture through the front of house, I was given total backstage access,” says Graham.

“I thought there had to be something in the fact that something on this scale would need the local businesses and council and communities and all kinds of other groups to work together. How you get the traffic lights working and get ballet on stage at the same time was something that I thought would be a great challenge and farce, with the possibility for chaos in the situation, felt like the perfect way to look at the story.”

Graham hit a problem. As we all now know, Hull City of Culture went off without a snag. It was like an incredibly successful well-oiled machine. Great for the city and for everyone involved; less good for someone hoping to write a farce about the whole process.

“As a dramatist, I had to look elsewhere.” Graham ended up in Monitoring and Evaluation.

Not an obvious place.

“It was a group of people who were assessing the impact of culture on the economy and the city, but also on the levels of happiness of people engaging with what was being brought and created in Hull.”

He not only found a story, but a story that allowed him to talk about something that matters to him. “In the face of austerity, when cuts are being made to services, it can be tough to make the argument of funding for the arts, but when you have a department actually measuring the value of the arts on our health – something I have always believed in – that’s a great thing.”

Before he became the hottest playwright of his generation, Graham was a student at Hull University. The Mansfield-raised writer has a strong sense of injustice about the great imbalance we have in the country when it comes to recognition and funding for the arts.

“I was really thrilled to be able to write something for Hull. It’s the city where I learned to be a playwright, it’s the place where I started seeing new writing at Hull Truck. I think the London-centric nature of arts funding is ridiculous and it’s something I bang on about whenever I get the chance, so it felt like I should do something myself that wasn’t in London when I got the chance.

“The ridiculous thing about this concentration of work and funding in the capital is that it is so easily solvable. We are a tiny island and there is simply no excuse for it to be skewed. The funding should be more evenly shared, that’s simple and then you need to tackle the psychological problem. Some actors’ agents tell their clients that they shouldn’t work in the regions because you won’t get national press, so why don’t national press come to the regions and that will mean agents don’t say things like that and maybe artists will be convinced that they don’t just have to make work in London.”

It’s great to hear such passion – and as far as tackling the imbalance, maybe having the most successful playwright in decades in Hull might be a good place to start.