Review: Sketching (Wilton's Music Hall)

James Graham heads a new multi-authored initiative to capture modern-day London

The cast of Sketching
The cast of Sketching
© Simon Annand

Can you cram all of present-day London, all buzzing, bustling eight million people of it, into one evening's theatre? No, of course you can't. But James Graham has a good crack at it with Sketching, his updated retelling of Charles Dickens' nineteenth-century collection Sketches By Boz. Graham plus eight other writers in fact, for Sketching is collectively written, a multi-authored microcosm of the contemporary capital.

It's essentially twelve tales, some stand-alone stories, some intimately intertwined. Graham himself has authored four, and marshalled the others into some sort of grand narrative order behind him. It's a remarkable feat, and it just about hangs together too. Only just, though. But, to be fair, it's difficult to imagine a panoramic play about London affording a better view than this.

Not that this view is picture perfect. Some of the evening's strands resonate better than others. Graham's own Katie And Tom Try To Move On, for example, is comically bitter break-up story with a delectably dark twist, set in a swanky Soho restaurant. Sumerah Srivastav's Mo's Second Hand Shop is a boisterous then bleak drama in a Mile End pawn-shop. And, best of all, Alan Gordon's The Emancipation Of Shona Bell-e is a catfight in Catford between a Scottish newcomer and his demanding drag-queen alter-ego.

But for every hit, there's a miss. The Hand of Hozan, Himanshu Ojha's murder mystery set in the fatberg-clogged sewers, lacks a satisfying conclusion. Graham's The Widow and the Songbird is a wincingly sentimental snippet about a distraught woman and a nightingale not far from Berkeley Square. And, particularly clangingly, his Peter Piper Has A Plan is a really wobbly attempt to unite all these separate stories together – a creaking caper about an East End villain trying to steal the internet during a Mayoral election. Does it all stitch together? Again, just about, but you can certainly see the seams.

It's all good fun, though. Thomas Hescott's production is very theatrical, all wooden crates and hat changes, his five-strong, rapidly multi-rolling cast clambering over the craggy stage to spin each story into life. Samuel James and Sean Michael Verey are particularly good, James as a cheekie-chappie crook and a fierce, Falkirk-born drag-queen, Verey as a wired political speech-writer and a squeaky sewer-worker.

A project like this inevitably provokes questions about representation. And they're questions that any play attempting the same would find difficult to answer. Is this really London, in all its diverse, disparate glory? Does it reflect Londoners' lived experience? Well, no. But Graham wouldn't claim it did. He would say that it's a small slice of London, a cross-section of the capital, a rollicking rollercoaster ride through the city. He'd be right. But like any rollercoaster, it has ups and downs.