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James Graham
© Rob Greig

James Graham: the writer putting the sexy back into political theatre

In just two months, rising star James Graham has released a film, opened a musical on Broadway, had two plays on in London and a TV show on Channel 4

By Daisy Bowie-Sell
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You may not know the name James Graham, but you’ve probably seen his work. The 32-year-old has the magic touch when it comes to distilling stuffy political events – from the Winter of Discontent to the coalition government – into sparklingly funny dramas. So how, exactly, does he do it?

Your breakthrough play ‘This House’ was about the 1974 minority Labour parliament. Were you worried it wouldn’t get the audiences?
‘I was terrified, because it was about politicians no one had heard of in a parliament where nothing happened. But if you can tell a good story with humanity, it will be engaging. The ’70s were one big enthralling identity crisis for Britain.’

Mark Gatiss starred in your recent TV drama ‘Coalition’. Do you find it easy to dramatise our politicians?
‘I love Mark. He was my Peter Mandelson. I’ve always felt the freedom to catch the essence rather than the specifics of a person. With “Coalition” I hope I was fair, I never feel like it’s my job to judge the characters or their motivations. It was really about how the British system coped, not about sending up Gordon Brown, Nick Clegg or David Cameron.’

Who was the ’70s terrorist group at the heart of your new play?
‘The Angry Brigade was a group of young people who were part of the 1970s counterculture revolution. They set off 100 bombs in London. The police enforced a press blackout on them and Time Out was one of the few to break it.’

You wrote a Broadway musical, ‘Finding Neverland’, with Gary Barlow. Did the muted response put you off showbusiness?
‘Absolutely not. It was my first musical and we knew “Finding Neverland” might meet with some cynicism, partly because of the size of the project [Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein is behind it]. But in rehearsals it just felt like I was working with some of the most talented people I’ve ever worked with. I love that show.’

How important was London’s network of new writing theatres to your career?
‘I wouldn’t be a writer if it wasn’t for the likes of the Finborough or Bush theatres. No one else would have commissioned a play about Anthony Eden and the Suez Crisis from a 21-year-old boy. They gave me the freedom to learn what I’m good and bad at.’

You’re known for even-handedness in your plays. Do you ever get angry at politicians?
‘I’ve always cared, I’ve always been passionate but I think I am starting to become angrier. I never feel like it is my job to project my own agenda on to the audience, though, which is so boring. But I am meeting more lawyers, which is surely a good thing: if a political playwright isn’t getting a phone call from a lawyer, they’re probably doing something wrong.’

The Angry Brigade’ is at the Bush Theatre until Jun 13.

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