Arts Theatre, London – until 2 July 2016
POLITICS. AS WE KNOW IT. OH DEAR.
Here’s a sharp one, beautifully suited to what is not only a Referendum season but one in which both main political parties are more than likely to do mischief to their leaders. We can’t rely only on nervous broadcasters and weary quiz-teams for performed political satire, so hats off to the Arts: whose historic shabbiness pleasingly channels a nicely threadbare Corbyn vibe.
Max Stafford-Clark and Out of Joint simply present five playlets designed to prod political sores. Three have been seen before, though not lately or freestanding, and there are two new pieces from Alistair Beaton and David Hare. Oh, and a short final ditty written by Billy Bragg.
One might have feared, especially after Stella Feehily and Max Stafford-Clark’s less well-judged NHS play This May Hurt a Bit (http://tinyurl.com/j6y9huh) a festival of tired leftie indignation. All Brigstockey and Jeremy-Hardyoid, like a bad Friday at 6.30 on Radio 4. But it’s cleverer than that, acidly theatrical.
Mark Ravenhill’s opener, The Mother, has a shocking, storming virtuoso perrormance from Sarah Alexander (Kathryn O”Reilly takes over the part from the 6th). She is an unemployed, 45-year-old woman on valium and benefits. Two soldiers – a young private and a middle-aged female Major – knock on her door, but can’t get a word in as she swears, chatters, offers breakfast and bats away all attempts at their “Mrs Morrison…” openers. It becomes clear that she knows they will be there about her son. All mothers of squaddies in recent wars know how bad news comes: she just doesn’t want to hear the words. At first very funny, it becomes troubling, briefly violent, suddenly deeply touching, finally oddly dignified. It makes your hair stand on end, evoking class, parenthood, military decency and the indecency of war. It was canny to start with something deeper than cynicism.
Next comes a short, self-consciously clever Caryl Churchill two-hander in which a young couple have a brief domestic exchange, then repeat it several times with the same intonation but the banal phrases replaced with jargon, slogan-speak and political and commercial clichés. Smart, briefly diverting, a sort of sorbet before the next course.
Which is a classic, wicked new number by Alistair Beaton set in the present Labour Party (names rejigged) as Bruce Alexander as a rightish backbencher lurks in a pub backroom orchestrating choreographed resignations, fending off calls from “Laura” at the BBC, excoriating the “Impetus” Corbynistas and failing to plug leaks, one wittily caused by Tinder.
It is horribly funny, tight and credible: but with something suitably yearning about the final acceptance that, the coup foiled, the future of Labour is chaos – but “Chaos with hope!”.
Only fair, then, for David Hare – in the other new piece – to be within the Tory party, with an imaginary discussion between “Gideon” (you know who) and the Russian-American prophetess of capitalist freedom, Ayn Rand. If free-market theory tends to make you tune out, don’t. Ann Mitchell’s Ayn is a treat: a masterpiece of stoutly sinuous seductiveness, her black frock making her half mamba half Mamma as Steve John Shepherd’s nervous Osborne struggles with internal conflict: conservative control-freakery versus conservative capitalism. Jane Wymark joins in as an unfairly caricatured – but very entertaining – Theresa May, to underline the absurdities of defending British values of tolerance by not tolerating “hate-speech”; she is borne down by the terrifying Rand over immigration.
And finally, one more squib about party management, Stella Feehily’s sharp little portrait of a Tory Whips’ office grinding down an MP for not reporting a colleague’s groping. When he learns who his replacement is, he squeaks “But she’s Asian! it’s Bury St Edmunds!”. Lovely. So it all hangs together nicely, not world-changing but not smothering either. Just weaving, casually in under two hours, a taut skein of light cynicism with glitters of important ideas. We need one of these every few months or so.
box office http://www.artstheatrewestend.co.uk / 020 7836 8463 to 2 July. ANd there are midweek matinees.