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James Graham

How James Graham became Britain’s most important playwright

Will Longman
Will Longman

This article was written ahead of the West End opening of Ink. Graham's latest play, Quiz, opens in the West End in 2018. 


Over the last decade, it's been hard to ignore the meteoric rise of James Graham. Through his care in presenting the historical and political facts, and the human side to well-known real-life characters we love to loathe, the audience is allowed to make up their own mind without having morals forced upon them. This autumn, Graham will have two new plays running in the West End, including his Rupert Murdoch play Ink. But just how did he become one of Britain's most important playwrights?

He first gained notoriety as a writer in residence at Kensington venue, Finborough Theatre. In 2005, Albert's Boy was his second play written aged 22, and was about Einstein's ethical dilemma over whether he did the right thing in enabling the atomic bomb to be created. He followed it up with Eden's Empire in 2006, about the Suez crisis in the 50s. His 2008 play Sons of York was about the feelings of betrayal people living in Hull felt towards the Labour governments in the 1970s. Heavy subjects indeed for such a young writer.

But if the critics' reviews were anything to go by, he was nailing it. After Albert's Boy, Time Out said there was a "precocity to his talent". Eden's Empire was labelled "gripping" by Michael Billington in the Guardian. In The Times, Sam Marlowe said Graham was "fast building a reputation as a sharp-eyed and witty political playwright".

In the years to follow, he collaborated with then-"hot new playwrights" Zawe Ashton, Joel Horwood and Michelle Terry, premiered works at the Bush Theatre and Theatr Clwyd in Mold, Wales and wrote a play about the Conservative party's struggle with sexuality.

His career reached another level in 2012 with This House, which opened at the National Theatre. Set in 1974, it dived into that year's elections: the initial vote throwing up a hung parliament, leading to scraps and squabbles that entailed in the Commons. While the action took place in the whips' offices, the audience were seated in traverse on plush green benches, placing them smack bang in the middle of the action. The play transferred to the Garrick Theatre, and is about to tour the UK. A play about the potential collapse of the Labour party never felt so relevant. This House won the Olivier Award for best new play in 2013.

It's not been all history and politics though, and between 2012 and 2014, he worked on a project entirely different. Along with Take That songwright Gary Barlow, he wrote the book for a reworked musical Finding Neverland. The productions started live at the Curve in Leicester, but eventually took off and got a Broadway transfer in 2015. The show ran for 565 performances, closing in August 2016, but it has been announced that the show will get a West End run soon. 

But naturally, political events are big moments for political writers, and for Graham, they didn't get much bigger than the 2015 general election. First, his film, Coalition, was broadcast on Channel 4. It documented the weeks after the previous vote, and the negotiations that followed between Cameron, Clegg and Brown (and the ultimate downfall of the latter politician). This was Graham's chance to present his work to a nationwide audience. In an interview with the Guardian, he said he "loved humanising politics", and that's exactly what he achieved; according to the Radio Times, who said the film made "the most powerful men in the country seem both ridiculous, and entirely human".

That same year, one of Graham's plays revolutionised television theatre. His play The Vote ran at the Donmar Warehouse, and was set in a Lambeth polling station during the last 90 minutes of polling for that year's election. It was broadcast on More4 live from the Donmar, at 8:30pm on 7th May 2015, meaning it was broadcast at the exact time it was also set. It attracted an all-star cast, too, featuring Catherine Tate, Judi Dench, Mark Gatiss and Nina Sosanya.

And so we arrive at Ink. Premiering at the Almeida in June this year, the play centres Rupert Murdoch and the formation The Sun, the centrepiece of his media empire. Trying to make it in the harsh world of Fleet Street, Murdoch buys the then failing broadsheet newspaper and attempts to turn it around, enlisting the help of editor Larry Lamb. Together, they will give the people what they want: stories about TV, free gifts, and of course, boobs on page three.

But, in typical Graham fashion, the play was praised for appearing to show a human side of Murdoch, brought to life by Bertie Carvel, the actor who portrays the Aussie mogul. Matthew Warchus as before commented on his ability to "make monsters and demons rooted and understood", and Carvel himself has said he's "always looking for the man in the monster". A perfect match, perhaps.

The play transfers to the Duke of York's Theatre in September, produced by Sonia Friedman, and will mean two of Graham's plays will be running concurrently in the West End (Labour of Love starring Martin Freeman also opens in September).

Graham has time and time again proved he has the ability to shed light on what is happening in our current political landscape by shining a light on our not-so distant past.

Ink Tickets are available now.

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