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James Graham: 'I've never felt a political play should appeal to the head and not the heart'

Playwright James Graham, 31, discusses the current NYT revival of Tory Boyz, the forthcoming TV adaptation of This House and his latest project - working with Gary Barlow on the rewrite of Finding Neverland

The heir to Hare? James Graham
© Johan Persson

James Graham is the very definition of playwright du jour. His smash hit This House at the National Theatre last year is about to be turned into a TV series, while its 2008 predecessor Tory Boyz has just been revived to acclaim in the West End.

And that's not to mention his forthcoming film projects, or the fact he's been widely hailed as the "new David Hare".

We chat just ahead of the opening of Tory Boyz, which is being staged as part of the National Youth Theatre's residency at the Ambassadors Theatre.

"This is the first time I've had a professional revival of one of my plays," he says, "so it's weird for me to have something from the back catalogue coming back again."

Written when Graham was just 26, the play centres on young, gay members of the Conservative party working in the House of Commons. It came about rather by accident, when NYT artistic director Paul Roseby asked him to write something about rumours surrounding Edward Heath's sexuality.

"I couldn't find a way of writing exclusively about Ted Heath, he just wasn't very exciting," he reveals. "But I happened to have some friends who knew some young gay people who were active in Conservative politics. I found that quite interesting, because at the time it didn't feel like the Tories were the strongest when it came to equal opportunities for gay people."

So has the play been updated since then?

"I remember speaking to Simon Stephens about whether you should update your old plays, and he felt quite strongly that you need to embrace them and not apologise for them. So I haven't changed it in terms of my voice but we have gone back and changed some details - it felt more relevant if we put the Conservatives in power rather than opposition and set the play today."

But didn't the recent gay marriage bill show that the Conservatives have turned a corner? Not according to Graham.

"A couple of issues always fuck the Tory party - Europe and gays. For whatever reason they always fumble their way through them really awkwardly," he says animatedly.

"So even though you could see the passage of the gay marriage bill through parliament under a Conservative coalition as a sign the party's moving forward, it still feels to me that they're having a constant internal crisis about sexuality."

But he's keen to usurp the stereotype that all Tories are grey-haired and homophobic.

"Tory Boyz examines the irony that, when you look at the junior members of the Conservative party - the young researchers and local members - it's surprisingly diverse and tolerant behind the scenes. It's just at the higher level, on the front bench, that it still seems to be the same sort of people wrestling with an issue that most of us came to terms with a long time ago."

'Theatre should matter'

Graham, who grew up in the Nottinghamshire mining village of Annesley, reveals his interest in politics was sparked by the 1997 election of Tony Blair, when the affairs of parliament "suddenly became more interesting and accessible".

Charles Edwards in This House

Like many of his generation, he was further fired up by the fall-out of 9/11, though can't pin down why it was that politics - not a traditional area of concern for young dramatists - became his calling card.

"I've always felt theatre should matter, it should be important and ask big questions. And there's something inherently dramatic about telling personal stories against the backdrop of world events. That's not my idea - it's what Shakespeare did and it's what the Greeks did. I've never felt that a political play should appeal to the head and not the heart."

But, this being said, he doesn't want to get pigeon-holed, and is keen to point out that his other plays - The Whisky Taster at the Bush and The Man at the Finborough (about a man filling out his tax return) - were not "directly political".

However, it's politics that has put him centre stage, thanks largely to the National's widely-acclaimed production of This House, which centred on the fragile coalition politics of the 1970s. Was he surprised by its success?

"I had no idea it would be a hit - that's not false modesty, I just did it for my own interest and was fortunate that Nick Hytner was excited by it too. Essentially it's a play about legislation in the 70s and I had no idea it would prove so popular."

He recalls sitting next to director Jeremy Herrin at the first preview feeling "terrified", a fear which soon subsided when it sold out in the Cottesloe and successfully transferred to the larger Olivier. And now, an adaptation by the BBC beckons. "It'll be a different format of it," he teases, keeping his cards close to his chest. "It's incredibly exciting because it'll enable me to reach a wider audience."

As well as bringing him wider acclaim, This House also put him in the big league, proof of which came when Hollywood big shot Harvey Weinstein approached him to work with Gary Barlow on the rewrite of screen-to-stage musical Finding Neverland.

"It's loads of fun," Graham says of his latest venture. "And it's something completely new - Gary and I meet up and just shrug and say 'we don't really know what we're doing.' But it's great to be working with people of his and Harvey's pedigree, and [director] Diane Paulus."

Chuckling now, like a kid who can't believe he's been given keys to the sweet shop, he adds "it's certainly a nice change to be writing about fairies and pixies rather than politicians."

Tory Boyz continues at the Ambassadors Theatre until 29 November