Our pick of playwright James Graham’s ten best works, as new National Theatre Gareth Southgate play announced
James Graham OBE, one of the UK’s most prolific playwrights, has made his name exploring a veritable mix of subjects over the years. These have included American evangelist Tammy Faye, the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? scandal, a Mathematics Olympiad, and the 1968 ABC TV interview between William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal.
Next up, he’s taking on the British footballing establishment, namely “the gentle revolution” that’s taken place in the English team since Gareth Southgate took over as manager. The new play, called Dear England, will be staged at the National Theatre and will have Joseph Fiennes starring as Southgate.
The play will follow Southgate’s journey since his 1996 penalty miss in the Euro semi-finals against Germany.
Speaking to the BBC, Graham said: ““I think what has happened to the men’s England football team over the past six years has been quietly extraordinary... It’s been humming along in the background, but we’re only starting to really understand now Gareth’s gentle revolution.”
“[It’s] great to be writing a story that hasn’t finished... My experience of watching England go out of this last World Cup, it was a multitude of conflicting feelings when I was sat there in the pub.”
Graham has written over 25 plays since 2005 (his first play was put on stage when he was just 23-years-old), as well as six on-screen works. His writing has won several Olivier Awards, and been nominated for a BAFTA, an Emmy and several Tony Awards.
With so many highly-acclaimed works to his name, it’s a hard task making a Graham top ten list, but we’ve tried. Here’s our selection of the playwright’s best works.
Tammy Faye (2022)
This musical about famous American evangelistTammy Faye, who hosted a popular Christian TV show with her husband Jim Bakker was a huge hit. The Standard said: “here are some shows you never expect to see, and a musical about a gay-friendly televangelist and America’s Christian right in the Seventies and Eighties by Elton John, James Graham and Jake ‘Scissor Sisters’ Shears is one of them. But here it is and praise the lord, it’s a religious riot.” Opening at the Almeida Theatre, it had Katie Brayben playing Faye and Andrew Rannells playing Jim.
This six-episode British crime series starring David Morrissey (The Walking Dead) as a chief inspector also got rave reviews. The story revolves around two murders – one of whom is of a former union activist – which have taken place in a Nottinghamshire village that’s still dealing with the fallout of the Eighties mining strikes. Lesley Manville and Alun Armstrong also starred. The Standard gave it five stars, saying: “There’s not a weak link in this ensemble, and even the briefer supporting roles somehow feel lived in, a wonderful synthesis of writing and performance.”
Best of Enemies (2021)
There are few years in American politics that have felt so acutely polarised than 2021, the year of the United States Capitol attack and the withdrawal from Afghanistan. So when Best of Enemies premiered at the Young Vic, it seemed perfectly timed. The play reimagined the 1968 ABC TV debates that took place between American conservative thinker William F. Buckley Jr. and left-wing public intellectual Gore Vidal during the Republican and Democratic Party conventions. Richard Nixon was running against Hubert Humphrey in the presidential race.
Best of Enemies was highly-acclaimed as soon as it opened, transferring to the West End after opening at the Young Vic. The Standard, which reviewed Best of Enemies when it was at the Noel Coward Theatre in 2022, called it a: “dynamic, intoxicatingly thoughtful play”. It also won Best Play at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards in December 2022.
Quiz (2017, 2020)
Quiz transferred to the West End a year after premiering at the Minerva Theatre in Chichester, in 2017. It told the story of Major Charles Ingram, who won Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? in 2001. But Ingram was famously never awarded his winnings after being accused of cheating – producers found the way he answered some of the questions suspicious – and handed the case over to the police. The Standard found the West End play, “more sure of its central thesis: what is “true” when so many aspects of modern life have become a type of blended reality?”
The play was turned into an ITV three-part drama in 2020, and had Matthew Macfadyen playing Ingram and Michael Sheen playing the show’s host Chris Tarrant. Sian Clifford and Helen McCrory also starred.
Brexit: The Uncivil War (2019)
Did we really want to watch a show about Dominic Cummings and Boris Johnson’s successful efforts to persuade the British public to leave the EU? Probably not, but Graham did such a fantastic job of retelling this horrible story that in the end, it made for a thrilling watch. Benedict Cumberbatch played Cummings, Richard Goulding played Johnson, Oliver Maltman played Michael Gove, and Rory Kinnear played political strategist Craig Oliver. The Standard called it a, “Pacy drama on voting Leave, starring a ‘career psychopath’ and two panto villains”.
Labour of Love (2017)
Labour of Love told the story of a Labour MP who’d been in office for over 25 years. It premiered at the Noel Coward Theatre, had a packed cast of stars including Martin Freeman, Tamsin Greig and Rachael Stirling, and, as with all of Graham’s plays, pulled in near-universally great reviews. The Standard said: “In the last five years James Graham has established himself as British playwriting’s prolific new wunderkind, and here he once again probes the thorny relationships that are the essence of political life.”
This time Graham put Rupert Murdoch under his lens. Ink was set in the Sixties, and followed the story of the Australian magnate as he bought The Sun and tried to make it into the huge paper it is today. Knowing the outcome of Murdoch’s efforts makes the play no less thrilling: The Standard called it “stingingly astute” and called Graham “theatre’s new master of political intrigue”. Ink premiered at the Almeida Theatre and then later transferred to the West End and then Broadway.
A second Standard review gave it five-stars, saying: “Ink is a welcome sort of theatre: political without being preachy, contemporary without necessarily being set in the present and, crucially, rich in entertainment value.”
X+Y, also known as A Brilliant Young Mind, was a feature length film which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and then the BFI London Film Festival. It told the story of an autistic teenage math superstar Nathan Ellis (Asa Butterfield) and what happens when he is chosen to represent the UK at a Mathematical Olympiad event. It’s about him finding comfort in numbers and the challenges of love. The film also starred Sally Hawkins and Eddie Marsan and received positive reviews.
This House (2012)
This House has come to be known as Graham’s breakout play, although the playwright had already put on twelve plays, including at the Bush Theatre and the Tramshed in Shoreditch, at the time it premiered. It opened at the National Theatre, and retold true events that took place in the House of Commons from 1974 and 1979, when parliament was gridlocked after the 1974 election had produced a ‘hung parliament’.
In 2016, it was reviewed by The Standard which said: “Guess what? This House, James Graham’s magnificently sharp and witty look at the struggles of the 1974-9 Labour government, is masterful all over again... It is, as I wrote before with a great beam of contentment, a landslide success.”
The Whisky Taster (2010)
Premiering at the Bush Theatre, The Whisky Taster was a play about Barney and Nicola, two successful advertising execs. Barney can feel, smell and taste colours, and his hidden talent has been helping the duo get to the top. Recently Barney has been feeling overwhelmed by his fast London life, while Nicola is still focused on landing each job. Then, they’re both profoundly affected by a Scottish whisky taster who is hired to help them with a new campaign. The FT called it, “a crisply written, engaging play, peopled with eccentric characters”.