What do we talk about when we talk about art? How can we measure its impact and success? These are some of the issues “The Culture – A Farce in Two Acts” interrogates. Most of the audience will have felt that Hull’s year as City of Culture 2017 has been a great success, but this play dramatises (and satirises) the problems faced when bureaucrats have to quantify that success and translate it into statistics. Is it possible to reduce the ideas, joy, wonder and amazement of art into graphs, charts and cold numbers?
This eagerly awaited stage play is the latest work of Hull alumnus James Graham (Drama, 2003) who, with a string of sell-out shows in the West End including ‘Ink’, ‘Labour of Love’, ‘This House’ and ‘The Vote’, has emerged as one of the leading lights of contemporary British theatre. As one of the most influential people working in theatre today, and with such a strong connection to the city, it is difficult to imagine a better candidate than Graham to provide a theatrical “summing up” of Hull’s year in the limelight.
Set in the Marketing and Communications Office of the Culture Company, the organisation that delivered the City of Culture programming, the play brings together a wide-ranging cast of characters representative of those involved in the year. The two main characters are Lizzie, an arts administrator who is tasked with evaluating Hull’s year, and Dennis, a member of the public who has come to make a complaint. There are colourful artists; self interested politicians; famous celebrities; and two City of Culture volunteers who, in many ways, are the heart of the show – the most likeable and human of characters whose lives have been transformed through volunteering. The narrative backdrop is the end of 2017, and the handing over of the City of Culture torch to Coventry.
Importantly for a satire and a farce, the play was hilarious, regularly punctuated with genuine laugh-out-loud moments. Delivered at a frenetic pace, catastrophe is piled on top of catastrophe. Lizzie’s hopes of delivering a presentation that proves the value of the City of Culture give way to fears that people’s doubts and negative preconceptions of Hull would be proven right, and that this wonderful year would be perceived as being a farce. In the end, though, the diversions, episodes of mistaken identity and farcical errors resulted in a better revelation: that Hull has a renewed and invigorated sense of pride and belief in itself.
In his recent “Inspired in Hull” lecture, Graham talked about theatre as a place where conversations start and where audiences gather for a shared experience. On its most successful level, the play celebrates and embodies that shared experience of Hull’s success as City of Culture, creating a connection between the play and its audiences at Hull Truck. The laughter was louder, the applause more rapturous, and the whole production was more emotional because everyone involved in making it happen, and everyone in the audience had a shared stake in the City of Culture experience, and in a strange sort of way, a stake in the play. It felt like we were watching a play that was made for us.