The Culture review – James Graham's shrewd spoof on Hull's big year

The playwright juggles satire and farce in a knockabout celebration of Hull’s tenure as UK city of culture

Satire is one thing, farce another, and the two forms prove hard to reconcile in this new play by James Graham, marking Hull’s highly successful year as UK city of culture. As a graduate of the local university and as a dramatist inspired by real events, Graham seems ideally equipped to write a state-of-the-culture play. But even he finds it difficult to manage two genres simultaneously.

As satire, the piece makes some shrewd points. Set in the city of culture offices, to which Graham was given unique access, the play shows Lizzie, an arts bureaucrat who is desperately trying to evaluate the extent of Hull’s success. Graham aims some well-directed barbs at the idea that the impact of art can be statistically measured.

What counts, as the play argues, is the ability of art to heighten consciousness and boost civic pride. When citizens were asked how they felt about Hull before it became city of culture, the words most frequently used were “insular”, “dull” and “dog shit.” A year later, the same people said “outward looking”, “exciting” and “fandango”.

It is when the play turns to farce you can sense the sweat standing out on Graham’s brow. Lizzie hourly expects the arrival of a civic leader from Coventry, Hull’s designated successor, and a bigwig from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. For reasons too complicated – and tedious – to explain, a local sign-maker, Dennis, finds himself impersonating both figures.

Matt Sutton, Jordan Metcalfe, Andrew Dunn, Martin Hyder and Nicola Reynolds in The Culture: A Farce in Two Acts.
Preposterous … The Culture, with Matt Sutton, Jordan Metcalfe, Andrew Dunn, Martin Hyder and Nicola Reynolds. Photograph: Andrew Billington

A lot of good farce is built on mistaken identity. The problem here is that the premise is preposterous. The only consolation comes when Dennis – who has simply turned up to complain that some rubbish he was trying to discard has been appropriated as a work of art – describes how Hull’s status as city of culture has ruined his marriage. Having encouraged his wife to believe there was an artist buried deep inside her somewhere, he returned home one day to find that was all too literally true. It is one of the funnier gags. There is also a nice one in which Tom Courtenay and Maureen Lipman, whose recorded voices we hear, are sent packing as a result of mixed telephone messages.

But there is something effortful about the idea of two warring volunteers smearing themselves in body paint or about a male ballet dancer’s photo having to be doctored because of its frontal explicitness. Very good when asking questions about the value and purpose of art, Graham lapses into mechanical improbability when he resorts to the farce-writer’s handbook.

Mark Babych’s direction keeps the plot boiling and the cast of six, many playing multiple roles, work overtime. Amelia Donkor as the harassed desk wallah, Andrew Dunn as the surly sign-writer and Nicola Reynolds and Martin Hyder, rushing on and off stage to engage in all kinds of wiggery-pokery, perform with ferocious energy. We even got, on the first night, a guest appearance by former Hull MP Alan Johnson. But, torn between writing a spoof of bureaucratic box-ticking and a celebration of Hull’s cultural achievement, as well as a mix of satire and farce, Graham ends up like a juggler trying to keep too many balls in the air at the same time.

• At Truck theatre, Hull, until 17 February. Box office: 01482 323638.

Contributor

Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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