James Graham: ‘I enjoy being the underdog nobody expects anything from’
James Graham’s first play, written when he was a stage doorkeeper at Nottingham’s Theatre Royal, was produced at London’s unfunded, 50-seat Finborough Theatre just 11 years ago – and his next three plays also premiered there. It’s a measure of how far he’s come that he’s since had a play produced at the National Theatre that was so successful during its initial Cottesloe run that it subsequently moved to the Olivier. He also has a hit musical playing on Broadway that should be West End-bound in the next year.
But when meeting him in a railway station hotel before he returns to Plymouth for final rehearsals for his latest play, Monster Raving Loony, the affable, boyish playwright says he still feels that he’s just beginning.
“I’m very pleased and relieved that I never had that early single play that thrust me into the limelight, where everyone goes, ‘Who is this person, where have they come from? Let’s give them loads of commissions and big stages.’ I don’t think I appeared with a bang but felt like I crept in very slowly around the back. I still feel like I’m getting started and don’t know what I want and haven’t learnt enough yet.”
He’s in his early 30s now, and is, by his own admission, a late starter.
“I’d hardly seen any theatre before I started my A levels,” says the Yorkshire-born playwright. “On my way here, I read in The Stage about a report the arts council published on the towns that are most and least engaged with the arts, and Ashfield, where I came from, is in the bottom 5%. But I was very lucky. I went to what was then the biggest comprehensive school in the country, and I had an amazing drama teacher who was determined that quiet, shy boys be shoved on to the stage and find their voices. I did musicals like Grease and Return to the Forbidden Planet, even though I couldn’t sing.”
It ignited something, and Graham chose to go to Hull University to read drama. “When I went to uni, I thought maybe I’d act, maybe I’d direct – I didn’t think about writing. I didn’t think that was what people did. Writers were just gods whose names were on the spines of books, but until I went there I’d never heard of Brecht, Dario Fo or Caryl Churchill. It was a very practical course, and you got loads of free time to grab actors and just put things on – so I started doing that.”
While his contemporaries went to the Edinburgh Fringe at the end of their first year, he had to work: “I remember working through the summer doing night shifts from 10pm to 6am in a plastics factory, crushing plastic things that went into the making of toilets. I didn’t even know what they were for.” But by the end of his second year in 2002, he went to Edinburgh with a play called Coal Not Dole. He says: “I learnt so much – it was the first time I’d exposed myself in front of a paid audience that were not my mum and dad and brothers or sisters. I was completely seduced by the prospect of locking the doors on an audience for an hour and a half – it completely grabbed me.”
By the time he graduated in 2003, Graham knew he wanted to be a writer. He got himself the stage-door job at Nottingham’s Theatre Royal so he could write during the downtime when plays were on. “I’d work 16-hour days there. Although it would be busy when new shows were getting in every week, they’d be there for the week and then I’d just have to check in the actors and backstage crew. When the show was up in the evening, I’d hear it on the feedback loop but have time to read and write.”
He started pitching ideas to theatres. “I sent off half-baked ideas to different regional theatres nearby like Nottingham Playhouse, Derby and Sheffield,” he says. “But the first time I properly knuckled down and wrote a full-length play was the one I sent to the Finborough. I’d never been to a London theatre, and I was realistic that I couldn’t just send it to the National and say I’d see them on press night. I did some research online and picked the Finborough, as I saw they’d done new work that was both historical and political.”
Within a week, he got a call. “I was on the stage door, and I remember Neil McPherson ringing me from the Finborough,” he says. “He told me that most of it was a mess, but there was definitely something there and that I should keep going, and he gave me some thoughts on what I should do. I wouldn’t be here without him, the risks he takes and the support he gives. I feel very lucky. Sometimes I think the Finborough seems a safe place to find your voice and make mistakes, but it is also pretty brutal – you have to build and paint your own sets. And on the night before the first night of my first play Albert’s Boy [in 2005], there was a massive storm and water was pouring through the ceiling and I was on a stepladder with a bucket. I realised I was at the coalface of theatre and this wasn’t as glamorous as I thought it would be.”
It was also the first time he’d worked with professional actors. They included Victor Spinetti: “I couldn’t believe I was in the room with someone who’d worked with Joan Littlewood and John Lennon.” But it is also an exposing place to work, he says. “You get the same scrutiny from critics after two previews as you do after two weeks of previews in the West End.”
He also had to be self-funding when he wrote there, and did call centre and bar work to do so. “There’s a conversation about whether working-class people can survive in the theatre since they don’t have rich parents,” he says. “There were days when I’d have to walk into town for a meeting and walk home again because I didn’t have the tube fare.”
He wrote three more plays in succession at the Finborough, and was grateful for the home: “Unofficially I had a slot every year that Neil would give me, and I could do whatever I wanted – there was no pressure for it to be on-message or on-trend. My second play, Eden’s Empire, about Anthony Eden, wasn’t something that anyone would ever commission or programme – it was not what people thought young people should be writing about.”
Any returns were profit-shared; the actors were paid first. “And that’s right, as they had to commit to being there. I was happy to be working on my day job. But it’s also really tough: I hate to contribute to a world where only those who can afford to write plays can write them. That’s the death of theatre. I couldn’t afford to either – but I just found a way to do it.”
Some believe that Equity’s desire to ensure minimum wage for all participants on the fringe would lead to theatres like the Finborough closing down. “You either want that building to be open or you don’t; there’s no middle ground. And I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t there,” says the playwright.
Graham finally got paid to write a play when Paul Roseby, who had seen one of his plays at the Finborough, commissioned what would become Tory Boyz for the National Youth Theatre. Not only was he paid, but he also learned something valuable: how to write a big play.
“What’s so great about the NYT is that you have to write massive plays for 30 or 40 people, as opposed to a black-box play for three or four, and you have to create all these characters. All the mums and dads are going to come to see them, so everyone has to have at least six lines. I’m sure there’s a link between having done that play and being able to write one that filled the Olivier.”
It was about a subject that has regularly informed his work: politics. “It came about because someone I went to university with was young, working class, northern, gay and a Conservative – and I’d never thought of all of that in one person before. And I love any way into writing about politics that is a bit weird and surprising.” It also hit a topical spot as questions around former Tory prime minister Edward Heath’s sexuality had come into question: “The idea of Ted Heath didn’t excite me, but a play about identity in politics and how we label people and how unhelpful that is did.”
Q&A: James Graham
What was your first job? My stepdad was a window cleaner, so I did a Saturday job with him.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Don’t chase the breakthrough – it’s lovely to emerge quietly.
Who or what was your biggest influence? My family. My parents are not artists or theatre people, but they have always encouraged me and been excited for me, and if I ever get carried away with things, they take the piss out of me and bring me back down to earth.
What’s your best advice for auditions? I love finding a company of actors – collaborators I can work with on the script in the room. Some actors will listen to a director’s note and then go again; some won’t and will do what they’ve already prepared. I like the actors who come in and are flexible, who listen to the director, then make a different offer based on that.
If you hadn’t been a writer, what would you have been? A history teacher.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? I obsess about font size and spacing. Playwrights always do. It’s all to do with formatting.
He’s often written about real-life figures: as well as his play about Eden, there was also This House at the National – which was seen by some of the very people it portrayed – and his latest play Monster Raving Loony, which uses the life of Screaming Lord Sutch to examine the state of the nation and Britain’s post-war identity crisis.
“I’ve never found a good answer to why I’m drawn to these subjects, but I loved history and self-contained narratives at school,” Graham says. “I studied A-level history, and I loved going in and finding out what happened next to Louis XVI, until he got his head chopped off. I find personal stories against the backdrop of big nation-changing events fascinating – it’s what Shakespeare did, and it’s what the Greeks did. I love learning about people who are making big decisions that affect us all, and trying to embrace the absurdities and lunacies of those situations and look at the human aspects of them.”
Of course, real-life stories also give you a bit of ready-made plot, but he notes: “You then have option paralysis of how to tell that story: do you do it through one person’s eye or 25, and what part of it do you tell?” It also requires rigorous research, which Graham calls his favourite part: “I love interviewing people and being invited into worlds that other people don’t get to go to.”
When the NT commissioned him to write This House, he faced a particular crisis of confidence. “Like everyone, I feel I’m constantly winging it and faking it. When they asked me to write a big historical play, I felt a fraud. It took me the longest time to get going. I took about six months to write the first 10 minutes, but then I did the first draught of the rest of the play in about a week.”
He also faced a practical problem: “The [parliamentary] whips never publish memoirs or give interviews – the only person to do so was Gyles Brandreth, and he was sent a card with a black spot on it, telling him he’d betrayed a tradition.” So Graham had to try to speak to former whips himself. “They were reticent to talk to me at first, because I was not established and I looked very young. But luckily I got through to Ann Taylor, the first female government whip, who started to invite me in a bit, and then others started to fall. Eventually loads of people talked to me.”
The play was set during the period between 1974 and 1979 when Labour was in power but had a very narrow majority and then had to form a minority government. It’s not a period Graham lived through himself, but he says: “Weirdly, I think that helped. I enjoy not being too ideologically clear and not preaching. I was more interested in the procedures in that building and the people who ran it, and the conflicts between pragmatism and ideology when the two are fundamentally opposed to each other in a hung parliament.”
He pitched it to the NT’s literary manager Sebastian Born after the May 2010 election produced a coalition government between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. “I didn’t know what it meant, but I knew it meant something that would be revealing about our system of democracy and how it behaves when it is put under the most pressure.” So he used a pivotal moment of a previously hung government to look at this one. “I did wonder if David Hare or Tom Stoppard would be pitching their ideas, too.”
The NT staged its world premiere, and even a West End transfer was planned – “We had a fascinating 24 hours when I met [then National Theatre artistic director] Nick Hytner for lunch to celebrate [that it would be moving], but by the time we sat down and ordered our starters, it was over.” The Aldwych Theatre they thought they’d secured went to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s short-lived Stephen Ward instead.
Graham’s career has lately been touched by this kind of offstage politics as he has moved through the ranks. He was brought in to help revamp Finding Neverland, the current Broadway musical, after another team entirely wrote a version produced at Leicester’s Curve. He says that by the time it reached Broadway, after he’d spent two years working on it, “I was very aware that a creation narrative starts to build around your show that you can’t control.” Finding Neverland is produced by Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood film mogul making his first incursion into Broadway theatre. “It was being painted as a beast of a machine and a purely commercial exercise,” says Graham. “But it never felt like that to us.”
The knives were out for it. “It was an interesting feeling. I’ve never had that before. I’ve always enjoyed being the underdog that no one expects anything from,” he says.
In the middle of it all, he was kept even busier by having to write (and rewrite) The Vote, written to coincide exactly with the final 90 minutes of polling on the evening of the last general election. The play was simultaneously broadcast by More4 that night.
“I was in New York for most of it working on Finding Neverland, and I’ve never written anything like that in my life,” he recalls. “We’d finish tech on Finding Neverland at 11pm, and I’d be up writing to 3am so the cast had pages when they woke up in London. It was constantly changing depending on who they got for the cast [there were 45 actors in the end, including Judi Dench]. I’m a big believer in theatre as a physical space being able to bring people together during big national events and to let them have a dialogue. Usually on election night we go home and see the pundits fill the time and pad out the news until something happens. Instead, people were able to get together to watch a story.”
And that wasn’t just the 250 in the Donmar, of course, but a national television audience of some 750,000 people.
Graham had previously experienced something of the sensation of being part of an event he’d created when This House was broadcast to cinemas around the world as part of NT Live – which he watched in New York. “I never thought I’d be surrounded by Americans hearing them laughing at my jokes about my own MP from Ashfield. It was so cool, so brilliant.”
The Vote was his second play for the Donmar Warehouse, after he collaborated, also with the venue’s artistic director Josie Rourke, on Privacy, an interactive play based on the revelations that former CIA operative Edward Snowden brought to the fore about data and how citizens are being observed.
“I love what [Rourke] is trying to do there and I really admire her. There’s a perpetual debate in the theatre about populism over more niche and experimental or challenging work. What I love is that the Donmar has enough of a reputation to be able to take a risk, but still has a deep desire to reach audiences with good work that is popular and accessible.
James Graham’s top tips for aspiring writers
• Don’t just go to the theatre and watch plays but also read scripts. I love to see plays, then read them and see how the director and designer used their tools to build and design something. It’s like walking around a building, seeing what it looks like, then getting the architectural plans out.
• Calm down. Don’t think you’re on a timer and that you have to break through
in your 20s. Just enjoy writing and don’t put pressure on yourself to ‘make it’.
• Write theatre, not literature. The most attractive thing about the theatre is its liveness, so don’t lock it down as a museum piece for all time, but embrace it.
“Not having grown up with theatre, and feeling so lucky to have found it, I have an unapologetic populism in me that I’m not ashamed of. I really want to reach audiences with challenging subject matters in an entertaining way. With Privacy, which as a subject was quite dry and inaccessible and unemotional, we found a way through that with interactivity. Before the first preview, we sat around the bar and I had no idea if we were going to get away with it or not. When we asked the audience to get their phones out and take a selfie, I thought, ‘If they don’t do it we’ll have wasted our time and the next six weeks are going to be very difficult’. But fortunately it really connected.”
Like many writers, Graham speaks admiringly of Caryl Churchill and her fearlessness and brevity. “She gets so much out of a short space of time, whereas I’m the opposite: it takes me an hour to get going.” But he adds: “I’m always guided by story first and foremost, but I also like playing with form, though I’d never have the bollocks to do what Mike Bartlett did with King Charles III. It’s a subject matter I would have loved, but I’d have had no idea how to do it in blank verse.”
His new play is an attempt to do something different again. “I’m not sure how to even describe it. It’s a bit mad. It’s ostensibly set on the working-men’s club circuit to tell the story of the life of Lord Sutch, who spent most of his life on that circuit. Like much of the country at the time, he was searching for his identity and what hat to wear – rock star, politician, DJ or activist – and he channels these different characters schizophrenically, through acts that come onstage to perform, like Tony Hancock and Morecambe and Wise. I have no idea if it will work. It’s a political play, but last Friday I was choosing feather boas and Punch and Judy dolls. It’s a disruptive show – you can’t just sit there and watch it, it’s in amongst you.”
And so is Graham’s talent. Though he’s been commissioned to and has written screenplays, he’s not sure he could ever do what his American agents have asked, which is to go spend eight months in LA working on television.
“Nothing about that appeals,” he says. “I want to be in Plymouth doing a play about the Monster Raving Loony party – that’s the muscle that exercises me the most and challenges me. I’d die as a writer if I was on my own in a room writing a film. I need actors and audiences. I love going to previews and sitting at the back of the audience. No one knows who the fuck I am, but I can hear them whispering and laughing or not laughing. Then I go home and come in with new pages the next day.”
CV: James Graham
Born: 1982, AshfieldTraining: Hull University (drama degree)
Landmark productions: Albert’s Boy (2005); Eden’s Empire (2006); Little Madam (2007); Sons of York (2008); The Man (2010)– all at the Finborough, London, Tory Boyz (National Youth Theatre, 2008), The Whisky Taster (Bush Theatre, London, 2010), This House (National Theatre, 2012), Privacy (2014), The Vote (2015) – both at the Donmar Warehouse, London, The Angry Brigade (Plymouth Theatre Royal, 2014), Finding Neverland (Broadway, 2014-present)
Awards: Catherine Johnson Award for best play in 2007 for Eden’s Empire
Agents: UK: Ben Hall and Lily Williams at Curtis Brown. US: John Buzzetti at WME
Monster Raving Loony runs at the Drum, Theatre Royal Plymouth, until February 27