Nine million Londoners. That’s a lot of stories to tell. Writer James Graham and director Thomas Hescott have attempted to collect some of them for a multi-authored play that creates a patchwork of contemporary London.
Sketching is an attempt to update Charles Dickens’ Sketches by Boz, building the city piecemeal and filling it with high-stakes stories and extraordinary characters.
To do this, Graham called for submissions by early-career writers of stories that could be contemporary Dickensian tales, and asked for information about the writers’ gender, sexuality, race, class, religion in order to cover as many communities as possible. He selected eight, and worked with them in a writers’ room to create this rollicking, imperfect, occasionally brilliant piece.
Four stories by Graham provide the core, while the others’ bloom around the main narrative, all tottering on Ellan Parry’s set that’s built up and up from the ground, like London, with wooden boards balanced on bits of scaffold.
It’s inevitable, really, that any attempt to capture London, its people and their stories is going to be frustrating. It’s going to be reductive, restricted, unrepresentative. That’s true here, first because it misses out a lot of communities (how could it not?) and second because the stories are all a bit over the top. If anyone can identify with a Moriarty-esque mastermind gangster then their life is probably a lot more interesting than mine.
But the play makes a virtue of the heightened reality it represents. Fourth wall-breaking addresses tell us that these are stories, that there is going to be a villain, that it’s all a bit silly. Even Daniel Denton’s very lovely drawings projected onto the back wall are cartoonish, as heightened as the text. The story gets increasingly strange as prophecies and revolutions are overlaid onto more mundane slices of city living.
So its purpose as a patchwork of contemporary London becomes a lot less interesting than its tightly woven, cross-cutting, plot-stuffed story. Blunt lines about zero hours contracts and police cuts give way to more fantastical things.
There’s some spectacular acting from the cast of five, playing some 50 characters. The always reliable Sean Michael Verey is as good in the comic roles – his timing is perfect – as he is in the more sinister ones. Penny Layden moves tirelessly and impressively from friendly copper to mournful widow to anxious squatter. Nav Sidhu, Samuel James and Sophie Wu are equally elastic and incredibly versatile.
Just like London, Sketching is messy and thrown together. There are annoying bits as well as amazing bits, and it’s impossible to see where on earth it might be going – it definitely needs cutting down slightly – but, as an exercise in collaboration and in its great arcing ambition, it’s pretty glorious.