Is there a more patriotic Englishman than playwright James Graham? The man’s heroic obsession with the most obscure and least sexy bits of post-Imperial British politics always makes me want to down a frothy flagon of non-craft ale in celebration. f he didn’t write plays about obscure anarchist collectives (‘The Angry Brigade’), the hung parliament of the 1970s (‘This House’), voting stations (‘The Vote’) or the Suez Crisis (‘Eden’s Empire’) I doubt anybody else could be bothered, and that would be a terrible shame. Even more impressively, Graham manages to keep a body of work that largely consists of stories about middle aged men in brown suits consistently fresh by constantly shaking up form.
You probably don’t need a PPE degree to guess ‘Monster Raving Loony’ is about political provocateur David ‘Screaming Lord’ Sutch and the Monster Raving Loony Party, who pricked the pomposity of post-war British politics by contesting numerous high-profile electoral seats with oddball candidates spouting nonsense politics. But Graham’s play and Simon Stokes’s production is way more ambitious than a simple biographical drama. It tells Sutch’s story via a series of stylistically divergent scenes that pay homage to the popular British comedy of the twentieth century – when we meet Samuel James’s Sutch as a boy, his mum is an innuendo-dispensing musical hall drag act; in his last appearance, mourning his late ma, he’s channelling Alan Partridge as a sad sack hospital DJ; in-between there are scenes done in the style of everything from Benny Hill to ‘Blackadder’.
To what end? Because it’s a laugh, I’m pretty certain – the play is at heart a virtuosic technical exercise, and the furious multi-tasking, multi-styling cast are phenomenally good. But at its deepest level ‘Monster Raving Loony’ would seem to be about British identity: early on it talks about Atlee reforging the national psyche in the wake of World War Two, and that’s exactly what Sutch does to himself, a low-born outsider who parodies Britain’s elites in an effort to give a new structure to his own life. In a country run by politicians, comedy is shown to be the truest form of democracy, holding everyone accountable, regardless of station.
It’s a wantonly ramshackle affair, and it’s semi-frustrating that Graham pointedly refuses to get under his protagonist’s skin in any conventional way. But the shards of him that emerge are poignant, sweet and brave, and the play stands as exhilaratingly daft tribute to not only Sutch but all the tricksters and pranksters who’ve defined this country over the last century or so.