Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: The Man, Finborough Theatre

Review: The Man, Finborough Theatre

Published on Culture Wars, 03.06.2010

I should admit to having a personal – and, therefore, entirely subjective – affinity for James Graham’s recent writing. Having made no secret of the way The Whisky Tasterchimed with me, I’m inclined to think of him, on the back of The Man, as something of a comrade. No other writer – at least, not that I’ve encountered – comes so close to voicing my own nagging concerns as (repellent though it might sound) a twenty-something, London-based, middle-class, white, male young-professional.

That boils down, in the main, to a blend of frustration, resentment and insecurity. Most damningly of all, there’s a smack of self-pity. It’s struggling to adjust to adulthood and the Real World (capitals strictly necessary). It’s adamant that it should be easier. It looks around at others and feels a little bit shit about itself. It’s hopelessly romantic and naively nostalgic. It’s a confidence thing, a beta-male thing. It’s all a bit pathetic, no?

Perhaps I’m putting words in Graham’s mouth, projecting my own anxieties into his work, but that’s why it resonates so personally. That’s what I get and, to be honest, I’m not sure whether I’m under attack for it or receiving sympathy. I’m hopeful that it’s a bit of both.

The Man, then, is born out of a first tax return, a rite of passage in itself, which also happens to mark the passing of a year. Graham seizes on the collection of assorted receipts as an opportunity for reflection and taking stock. Not simply a record of purchase, each receipt marks a moment of personal history. Each is a particular moment’s lingering stain. As Graham spells it out, each printed slip is ‘a record of what we buy’ from which we can define ‘who we are, what we value’. It’s a cute idea – almost golden-hued with romanticism – as is the developing relationship with the almost anonymous voice at the other end of the tax helpline: Lisa from Wrexham.

To this Graham adds another device, essentially he puts his text on shuffle. Each receipt is a cue card for a memory or story – first dates, funerals, fumbles and fear – but the order of those narratives shards depends upon the order of the triggers. On entering the Finborough, we receive a receipt, which the actor (four actors play the role over the course of the run – I saw Graham himself, more of which later) retrieves blindly during the show. The open structure echoes the chaos of the actual sorting experience and the way reminders can wrongfoot. It also has the effect of drastically changing the crux of the story and, accordingly, the character.

After all, Ben Edwards has had an eventful year. He’s been through two deaths, a divorce, two break-ups, one resignation, one new business, one relocation. On the night I saw it the first receipt to emerge was a train ticket; one that took him to his twin brother’s funeral. Suddenly, that particular strand of this person leaps into pole position, it becomes definitive as everything else is seen in relation to it. This, we think, is the year in which Ben Edwards lost his twin brother. Given a different order, it would have seemed a different year.

There’s also the question of omission. At several points, a host of receipts are bundled up and dealt with on the basis of generic type: train tickets, for example, or supermarket receipts. You can’t help but wonder what stories remain undisclosed and how else this year/this person might have been defined. (That said, a peek in the playtext reveals the slight cheat: ‘The presence of the Sainbury’s receipts should help to combat the unpredictability of audience numbers in any given show (i.e. once the number of ‘key story’ receipts have been taken up, extraneous Sainsbury’s receipts can be handed out to all additional audience members)’. Somehow that seems a shame, like Graham is playing with something without entirely committing to it. The safety net is definitely in place. As he writes in the same section: ‘It’s easier than it looks’.)

Graham has a knack of spinning connections. He lassoes together the taxman’s tag as The Man with the limbo-like state of being a twenty-something, technically an adult, but seeing oneself as an ill-equipped child. That, in turn, is linked to date etiquette – whether the man ought foot the bill and protect his woman – and the brittleness caused by his twin brother’s bone disease (which, itself, becomes significant at the Natural History Museum: a room full of anciently sturdy bones). As with The Whisky Taster, Graham’s associations here latch onto seemingly trivial pop culture, such that Ant & Dec become a metaphor for twins (they are insured against each other’s deaths: ‘two halves of the same whole’), Richard Curtis films demonstrate Ben Edwards’ naivety and the X Factor’s over-25’s category becomes a yardstick of his age in a youth-conscious society. It’s smart and witty stuff.

Given the amount crammed in around his chosen skeleton, however, it’s curious that Graham never grapples with recent expenses scandals. While he has a gentle stab at the financial crisis (Ben Edwards, shocked to learn that he’s a company in and of himself, measures his monetary success against the Northern line, rising closer to the Thames and plummeting back towards Morden), it feels as though Graham’s missed a trick by keeping things honest. Yes, the dilemma as to whether or not a receipt is worthy of claim emerges, but it does so too timidly to make itself a sticking point. After all, don’t we all squeeze and scrimp every penny as we bid a grudging farewell to our hard-earned cash? What does that say about our ideals and corruptions?

Performing, Graham’s fine. He’s an enjoyable presence, affable and meekly jovial, but he never sets his own material alight. Mainly because he approaches Ben too unequivocally, allowing his self-deprecating insecurity to dominate each individual story. I suspect Barnett and the other actors might find more variety and spice along the way.

Graham’s presence also has the peculiar effect of suggesting process. I couldn’t help but jump to from fiction to fact, making the assumption that these receipts – even if not the stories that spring from them – were real and the piece as a whole sat somewhere between traditional play and performance art, a deliberately blurred revelation of self. Was Graham really sat in row K of the Queens Theatre on 11 December, 2009, watching Les Mis? Did he really once buy 12 Vienettas and download the Black Beauty theme? (In fact, I overheard the true significance of that track on my way out, but I’ll spare Graham his blushes…) Somehow the totality of the fiction spun seems a pity; separating fact from fiction could have been an interesting additional layer to the piece.

For all its cuteness, which certainly left my fondness for Graham’s work intact, The Mannever fully satisfies. While it’s neatly knit and quick-witted, there’s the feeling that it pulls its punches. It seems to shirk the ardour of The Whisky Taster’s central accusation and shies away hammers home its criticisms. That said, Graham does himself no disservice. The moment he mans up to it, he will send a clattering message on behalf of a younger generation.

Photograph: Finborough Theatre

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