The man in question, Ben, is doing a very sweet elf impression that is at once adorable and tinged with desperation. He’s the average Joe who shouldn’t get the stunner next door but somehow does, the nerdy lad who for some reason you want to impress. Ben, like all of us, hates doing his tax return and this time he’s making it even more difficult by working through not only the paperwork of the last year, but the stories and emotions behind each printed piece. We are being invited to peek into his life via his receipts.
It is a raw and revealing journey: in this consumer driven world, what we buy really does define us. Ben’s roles as boyfriend, brother and son are questioned and tested; he seems resigned to his sense of failure in these mantles. It occasionally gets so personal as to be almost voyeuristic, but James Graham’s play is too gentle for that. Ben, after all, actively wants us to be there. We are given receipts as we enter and throughout the piece he takes his cue from these scraps of paper, speaking to us directly. Drawing us into his world, he skips about the stage like the Andrex puppy or a child during show and tell, his sadness tinged with a hope that talking these things through will help him move forward.
The fluidity of this format – each night is different depending on the audience and the particular receipts selected – lends the show a natural improvised feel and the rotating cast adds to this sense of unaffected interaction. Today we are treated to Leander Deeny, whose gulping nervousness is pricked with flashes of direct eye contact that create an engaging mixture of timidity and confidence; it’s a potent combination.
The charm of this piece lies partially in this central performance. But it is also intrinsically linked to the simple genius of telling one man’s story through the faceless and depressing organisation that is the Inland Revenue. The Man is both that authority we all work for, the one that rock stars are always telling us to stick it to, and the flesh and blood, likeable human we see before us. Graham has succeeded in humanising a bureaucratic and mundane piece of paperwork. In this sophisticated and innovative new play, tax really isn’t all that taxing.
The Man runs until Saturday 19 June
Originally written for What’s On Stage