CELEBRATION FOR A CITY
Right place, right time, a last flurry of fireworks by the Humber. The hottest of young playwrights, James Graham, lovingly teases the city where he was a student : a place more joked-about than celebrated, but in an unexpectedly enthusiastic mood about itself. He reimagines and larkily mocks the end of its City of Culture year, as a manically overenthusiastic team prepares to hand the baton to Coventry the C of C for 2021.
It’s a great idea, and studded with good jokes both about Hull itself, the wackier events of the year, local authority ploddery and – principally – the absurdity of bureaucrats trying to evaluate the point of art through statistics and surveys. On one side big fat folders and prattle about outcomes and targetation, metrics, amalgamated workstreams and data-capture; on the other the kind of artist who pitches up with equally loopy jargon and a “Transportational Touch Exhibit” involving a blindfold , a caseful of objects and a chanted commentary through a distant microphone.
The inciting incident of the plot itself is the kind of modernism which brings the aggrieved Dennis the sign-maker to turn up and accidentally disrupt the big day. He put an old fridge and sofa out for the Council refuse collectors, all correct, and it immediately got elected as an artwork, surrounded by keen art students and attracting respectful coachloads from Leeds.
All ll great stuff. And Andrew Dunn as Dennis is, as ever, a gem of grumpy, eloquent, dryly bluff blokeishness. To get the idea, remember him as Tony in Dinnerladies on TV. Indeed quite often this play feels like James Graham channelling Victoria Wood: and once Ab-Fab too, as Janice the overkeen volunteer is played by Nicola Reynolds (in one of three fast-changing roles ) as pure Bubble. So we’re rather at an angle from the familiar Graham of tightly researched, purposeful and beautifully structured recent-history plays – This House, Ink, Labour of Love. And he is not a natural farceur, though there are some intricate misunderstandings, crossed lines, redial-jokes and a lot of dashing about through doors.
It comes to life best when the people are more credible than merely comic: shrieking Janice is far too broad, and Amelia Donkor as Lizzie, the manic statistician who is trying to organize the handover and presentation is far too hectic. There is no sense of how she really is, still less of how she ended up in Hull. Mark Babych, otherwise directing with pace and farce-door ingenuity, would have done better to slow down her gabble-and-shriek, which blurs into incomprehension some of Graham’s fine parodic jokes about her trade.
But the second half in particular is full of strong laughs, some nicely smutty, some manic, and many particularly fun for Hull people (I came with my husband, a former Radio Humberside man, who got them all). Short cameo characters are great – especially Nicola Reynolds as a smugly self-assured DCMS minister, and Matt Sutton doubling as a furious Labour council chief in a red tie and a bored lawyer, who has a late artistic catharsis brought on by blue cake-icing (don’t ask). There are two nice phone events with local heroes Tom Courtenay and Maureen Lipman, and a nicely thrown-away reference to them both melting down in pique later.
Martin Hyder is terrific as both the baffled Coventry council chief (“I thought you just toss some cash to some artists and they do some art?”) and later as another volunteer, an ageing ex-deckie off the trawlers of long ago. He is glowing with pride at having done masterclasses in both CPR and LGBT “so I can both save lives and talk to gay people’. He gets, near the end, a moment of truth when he admits that as the year ends he’ll miss it, the sense of belonging that vanished when the fishing declined. Dunn too speaks for Hull’s pride and insecurity too, in the final moments. And it is in those moments that we’re back with the Graham we know, humane and perceptive.
So not one of his best plays, though the arguments about measuring art are sharp and useful. But at this moment, in this place, it’s a lovely thing. I’m glad to have been there.
hulltrucktheatre.org.uk to 17 February