TALES OF A CITY
“I see a beautiful city” says a spotlit actor, and the rest take it up in styles from Radio 4 to rap, then group and regroup, changing with the shrug of a jacket or clap of a hat. There’s a Billingsgate porter shaking his head at the unreality of banking while his apprentice dozes, a Kensington squat turned gallery, fatbergs and heartbreak, modern slavery and murder , Westminster Abbey and Pentonville prison. Oh, and an internet hack , a drag queen, stage doors ,Soho bars, a bedsit in Catford and a nightingale miles from Berkeley Square. All in 24 hours of a tense Mayoral election as a flawed diamond of a city revolves to show in turn its darkest, funniest, kindest, quirkiest facets.
There are eight authors and as their leader – and contributor of three of the strands – the ever-fertile, ever-fascinated James Graham. He brought them together in the spirit of Charles Dickens’ “Sketches by Boz”, vignettes of London life; the atmospherically crumbling old music-hall wraps itself around them happily. And as Graham is a man of the theatre, there are a couple of West End jokes and a correct use of Chekhov’s Gun Rule. Some of the stories work better than others, obviously, some have clearly been dropped since the publicity, and one or two are more obvious than intriguing. But I definitely took a fancy of HImanshu Ojha’s The Hand Of Hozan, and Alan Gordon’s mournful evocation of the drag queen Shona. Graham himself is to be credited with the idea of a convict using his probation to blackmail a Yeoman Ravenmaster at the Tower into releasing the ravens , which as any fule kno will bring chaos on city and monarchy. The idea of “stealing the internet” is nicely evoked iwith Daniel Denton’s video backdrops, with a real sense of wonder and doom about how it is so full of everything from love notes to money, a digital bloodstream.
Thomas Hescott’s direction keeps it all rattling along nicely and the cast are nimble and witty, notably Samuel James in various absurd personae and Sophie Wu switching between ingenue and absurd faux-galleriste within milliseconds. Towards the interval three of the stories pleasingly start to merge and meld, though they will divide again. The second half sees a satisfying bit of detective work , the exposure of one truly bad villain, and a revelation about the drag queen: there’s a moment of melodrama in the gallery of Westminster abbey which Victorians would approve of, and a return to the young lovers. Which, just when you think it might be getting a bit too Love-Actually, sees the emergence of a second serious villain.
But the heart of this tangled, intriguing show is sweet as a nut. The heroic sewerman, wrangler of fatbergs, says it for all of us: “the trick is wading through the muck day after day and not letting it get inside you”. Dickens’ ghost nodded, satisfied, from the crumbling balcony.
box office wiltons.org.uk to 27 Oct