“I can’t do anything now...without Mum going ‘ooh you and your London ways’”
Isn’t it great when sometimes you have your low expectations just thoroughly confounded. Having booked my ticket to see The Man at the Finborough Theatre for this particular date to ensure I could see the reading of Mike Bartlett’s new play Bull later on the same evening, I was quite disappointed when the cast was announced, the lead role being shared by four actors including Samuel Barnett but on my night, we were being landed with the playwright James Graham instead. So off I trotted to Earls Court fully prepared with grumpy indignation, but I am pleased to say that I think we just might have witnessed something very special indeed.
As you enter the small auditorium, you are handed a receipt and told to keep hold of it as it will form part of the story. The set is simply dressed with piles of receipts, magazines, an iPod and speakers as the focus is on the receipts we have in our hand. Ben arrives on the pretext of trying and failing to complete his tax self-assessment form and begins to go through the pieces of paper one by one, taking them from us and deciding whether they are claimable expenses or not, telling the stories that lie behind them whilst doing so. It means that each night, the whole story will be told in a different way in a different order, providing a “uniquely interactive experience” which for once is exactly what it says.
Through supermarket receipts, travelcards, invoices, dinner bills, iTunes payments, Ben tells us the tale of the last financial year with its highs and lows, but soon the detail and colour provided in the stories give us the larger picture of Ben’s life and all its considerable difficulties. I want to avoid being spoilerific about any of the revelations as most of the joy will be in discovering the story in the order that you get it on the night you go, but I will just say I doubt you’ll be able to listen to the song Ben by Michael Jackson with a dry eye the next time you hear it. The iTunes receipts actually work really well as a way of breaking up the delivery, but also served as a huge emotional trigger, on my night James Graham managed to get a tear rolling down my cheek within 10 minutes from his reaction to a song starting up. He was utterly convincing as the shy, apologetic Ben, unsure if he's living the London life he ought to be, generally lacking in confidence and emotional maturity but all kinds of adorable with it. The role is being shared by Samuel Barnett, Leander Deeny, Alex Price and George Rainsford throughout its run, but I feel really quite lucky to have seen Graham performing his own work, his obvious deep connection to the material heightened the emotion of the moment quite considerably and I am sure I am not the only one who left ever so slightly in love with him.
There are a few moments when the format doesn’t quite allow for the full breadth of the story to be told and consequently a little bit of dramatic license was required when the necessary receipt did not appear from an audience member, but this added to the charm of the evening, the almost ramshackle way in which this tale was being lovingly stitched together and actually felt more truthful this way, memories rarely come back to us in complete running order and telling one story can trigger the echoes of another, something Graham played extremely well.
Scattered throughout the reminiscences are the only interactions that Ben has with the outside world over the telephone with a woman from the Inland Revenue in Wrexham. The role, or more accurately voice, of Lisa was played by Lizzy Watts but it is shared with Michelle Luther and Stephanie Thomas throughout the run, further adding to the possible permutations. Watts did extremely well at the endlessly patient Lisa, guiding Ben through the paperwork and responding amusingly to his increasingly more personal questions.
So from entering the theatre with a slightly heavy heart, I left feeling thoroughly exhilarated and really quite moved. This was a truly thrilling night at the theatre, fresh and exciting, heartbreaking and funny, but above all genuinely engaging. Samuel Barnett is bound to be amazing as Ben, but to be honest, if you can get tickets to one of the random nights that James Graham is performing then do it, you will not regret it.
Running time: 70 minutes
Playtext cost: £3
Labels: Alex Price, Finborough, George Rainsford, James Graham, Leander Deeny, Samuel Barnett, Stephanie Thomas