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Theatre review: The Man 
8th-Jun-2010 10:08 pm
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It's a cliche that no two theatre performances are the same, but for his new play, The Man, James Graham throws in not one but two twists to make sure this holds true: First, depending on which performance you see, the central role is played by one of four actors, including the playwright himself, George Rainsford and, on his days off from Women Beware Women, Samuel Barnett. As it turns out, entirely by chance (I'd booked long before the performance rota had been announced) I got the only one I had no prior knowledge of, Leander Deeny. Who turns out to be a bit adorable, in a rather gawky way, and is apparently also a published children's author. According to the schedule this was his final performance, and although visibly nervous, presumably because of the second twist, he did well. The play is almost a monologue, but as it starts we find Ben on the phone to the Inland Revenue, asking for help filling in his self-assessment tax form. He strikes up a bit of a friendship with the voice on the end of the line, played by an actress sitting at the back of the audience (Stephanie Thomas tonight; but this role is also rotated between various actresses.) Ben occasionally calls her back for help throughout the play, but most of it is taken up with him going through his receipts from the last year to find out what is tax-deductible; in the process he tells us the story behind each purchase.

This is where twist #2 comes in: Everyone in the audience has been given, at random, a receipt. Deeny goes around the audience picking up one at a time and telling its story, so although the actor knows what the script is, until he looks at each receipt he doesn't know which bit comes next. So we get the story of Ben's year in non-chronological order: The breakup of a long-term relationship; the beginning, and end, of a new one; his attempts to get his internet-based business going; and most importantly a death in the family. Gimmicks done with, it's a pretty simple but very effective story, and while there's loads of funny moments overall this is a rather sad piece, dealing largely in regret as Ben, having reached his late twenties, starts to wonder if he's done enough with his life. While the casting gimmick is only of any interest if you're planning on going more than once, the random order of the story is pretty effective. Although it's not the only way to tell a story out of order, it does mean that what's truly unexpected is the play's rhythm. Where in most stories you can feel if the tone is about to shift, from light to darker, from serious to a bit of comic relief, here the audience doesn't know what's next any more than the actor does, you could be getting a funny interlude, a song played on Ben's iPod (the receipts include some of his iTunes purchases) or something heartbreaking.

As I say, Deeny did seem visibly nervous tonight, but fortunately the way Graham's written Ben as a bit of an insecure, geeky character, leaves room for this. And with the exception of one scene where he visibly had trouble holding on to his lines, he got through it with little more than the odd stutter. I can easily see that the role would be well-suited to Sam Barnett as well, although I'm intrigued as to how the more studly George Rainsford will fit into the gawky role. Overall a clever, moving piece, that I think would work without the gimmicks, but in the case of the second one at least is, in my opinion, very much enhanced by it.

The Man by James Graham is booking until the 19th of June at the Finborough Theatre.
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