I greatly admire James Graham as a playwright, and not just because almost everyone else does. He has the knack of turning really unpromising material into entertaining drama, something he shares with Lee Hall. His plays are accessible (which isn't a dirty word in my book) while never being humdrum or predictable.
I knew I'd never get a ticket for his election play The Vote at the Donmar, so I watched it on Channel 4, where it's still available on catch-up for another four weeks. For anyone who was too busy campaigning, it's set in real time in a polling station in the last 90 minutes before the general election polls close. It's funny, human and plausible; when things go wrong and ballot papers get duplicated or muddled and the polling officers try to put things right, the comedy isn't forced or unbelievable. WIth Mark Gatiss and Catherine Tate in charge of the voting, there's a motley gang of voters led by Judi Dench, and the brilliant Paul Chahidi plays a single-issue candidate opposed to the one-way system around Morrison's supermarket. What I like most of all is the way Graham, as he did in his 1970s parliamentary drama This House, never loses sight of the serious purpose behind the sometimes absurd ritual being played out. Yes, it's democracy, and getting it right matters.
Meanwhile the Bush theatre is showing Graham's new play about the Angry Brigade, a now-forgotten gang of anarchists who carried out bomb attacks against establishment targets in early 1970s London. I can't claim to have ever known them, but I remember the case well from news reports, and somewhere in my loft I still have a box or two of leftwing alternative newspapers from that strange and troubled period.
Graham's reconstruction of the period has a few gaps and weaknesses, but his sense of stagecraft and storytelling makes the play compelling nonetheless. WIth just four actors, he delivers two plays one after the other, which is a bold way of solving the structural problem posed by the story. The police and the bombers don't meet until the final climax, though the bombers send the police their communiques and one of them makes a series of mysterious calls to the detective in charge. Harry Melling is outstanding in a multiplicity of roles, while Felix Scott plays the acting detective sergeant in the first half of the play, and John, the Angry Brigade's central figure, in the second half. Patsy Ferran and Scarlett Johnson play the inevitably secondary roles of policewomen before the interval but come into their own as the female bombers afterwards.
For me, the first half, set among the police, is not as good as the second. The play takes a while to get going, with the accent falling too heavily on comedy at the start. Yes, the police in 1971 were pretty dim, but not quite as dim as they appear here, with some lines seemingly borrowed from a Carry On film. The story Graham is telling is how these coppers with extremely limited imaginations were forced to suddenly get to grips with something completely new -- criminals motivated by ideas. Luckily their leader Detective Sergeant Smith is made of smarter stuff and realises that the puzzling word SPECTACLE means that the bombers have been reading Guy Debord's situationist doctrines. Gradually the neat and tidy world of the police investigation succumbs to its own kind of anarchism as the team realise they can only penetrate the bombers by thinking and feeling like them. By the time of the climax they are smoking joints and rolling around on the floor.
Looking back on the period, most memorably fixed on screen in Lindsay Anderson's 1968 film If, I think it's important to remember that the complex cultural shifts of the 1960s and the political conflicts of the period often crossed over and influenced each other, but by the 1970s they were drifting apart. Hippy culture, sex, drugs and rock music became a fashionably diluted lifestyle choice and opened up a lot of business opportunities for people to get rich. Mick Jagger sang about a Street Fighting Man but didn't actually try to be one himself. The political left, after the defeat of the French student revolt in 1968, abandoned mass revolutionary action. Some went into party politics while a small minority turned to terrorism, like the Baader-Meinhof group in Germany. The Angry Brigade was a pale and very British example of the second tendency. From today's viewpoint, the fact that none of their home-made bombs actually killed anyone seems faintly ludicrous.
Graham's version of what made the Angry Brigade tick is thoroughly researched and as plausible as any other. The important thing is that it comes to life as theatre, particularly in the scenes between Anna (Patsy Ferran) and Jim (Harry Melling) when Anna tries unsuccessfully to get Jim to say he loves her.
Though the play contains brief references to the Heath government and a well-placed line about the Tories ('They always get back in'), I feel it lacks an overall sense of what was happening in the wider world outside. When the personal is political, the wider context matters a lot, as it does in plays such as The Entertainer and Look Back In Anger. John Osborne was technically not as good a playwright as James Graham, but his writing caught the spirit of the age. Arnold Wesker did the same.
The Angry Brigade, first seen at the Theatre Royal Plymouth and directed by James Grieve of Paines Plough, is nonetheless fascinating drama. With seats at the Bush costing as little as ten pounds for a concession ticket, it is outstanding value for money. Who needs the West End?