White Bear Theatre, London – until 8 December 2018
Disillusioned maverick MP Joe Newman quits the Labour party on a point of principle and stands as an independent. He’s ecstatic when he is unexpectedly elected in a Labour heartland.
But he doesn’t have a party, a manifesto or, indeed, any policies – but he has to find some fast when, to his own astonishment, and despite a sex slur in the press, he gains not only public support but also the backing of other MPs from both sides of the house.
This is the background to Michael McManus’ An Honourable Man which has arrived at London’s White Bear Theatre, after a successful tryout earlier this year. It is a new political play that thinks it deserves a place in the cabinet – or at least the front benches when, in fact, it’s more likely to struggle for a seat in the next reshuffle.
It doesn’t come up with much new but it is repackaged and updated – a bit like the platforms run by today’s political parties. It makes some valid points but there’s a lot of writing by numbers, ticking the right boxes.
You can’t come up with a drama about modern day politics without including Brexit; that hot potato, immigration, is, of course, high on the list of must haves; and a story about MPs isn’t complete without a gay sub-theme, which is getting rather blasé in today’s liberal climate.
Even Joe’s best friend, neighbour and fringe actress, Liz, remarks that no-one cares any more about his sexual orientation, and she’s right.
We may have taken more notice if McManus had given him a sleazy proclivity for young boys, or a quirky fetish, rather than making him gay.
Just like politics, there’s a lot of fancy gimmicks and hot air in this two hour drama. McManus, a political insider who has worked for three Prime Ministers, obviously knows his stuff and has used his well-placed connections to secure some heavyweight cameos in the show’s video news footage.
But a couple of the characters – Joe’s aide, Sam, and his predecessor, Josh, are sorely under-written and Lisa Bowerman’s rottweiler of an assistant, Anne, appears to have a complete personality change as the plot progresses.
I couldn’t get Nigel Farage out of my head while watching An Honourable Man, despite this being about a defecting Labour MP and not a Tory.
The former UKIP founder and leader, clearly not gay by the way, would love this story, in fact he probably fantasises about something similar on a nightly basis.
Here Joe finds himself unexpectedly elected to a Teeside seat in a historical landslide victory.
And, with other fed-up MPs disillusioned with two-party mainstream politics, he’s got to come up with some policies post-haste.
In the space of a very short time he has gone from a hopeless cause to everyone’s Mr Popular, a man capable of breaking the mould of British politics, and a contender, whisper it quietly, for No. 10.
This is McManus’s political fairy tale when anything and everything is possible.
So Joe and his very small team have a brainstorming session to come up with “robust, commonsense policies,” graffitiing the walls with potential manifesto ideas.
Inevitably they turn to popularist, if naive, vote-winners like improving public services and education, fixing potholes, the lousy railways and the banks, and tackling knife crime.
But “the elephant in the room” is immigration and, suddenly, everything becomes clear. Win the support of Sun man/ white-van man with hardline policies about immigration and they can’t lose.
Anne, backed by power-hungry Sam (Max Keeble) begin bullying the benign, decent, Joe, into swinging from man-of-the-people socialist to man-of-the-people alt-right who will push for a block on immigration, repatriation, and more.
“It’s at the heart of why so many people are anxious and angry,” says Sam. “I know, I know,” admits Joe despite being warned by party mandarin Maggie (a beautifully under-played Annie Tyson channelling Mo Mowlem) not to forget his roots.
Tim Harker, as Joe, gives a solid turn as the former back-bencher whose head is turned by the ambitions of his staff and Dee Sadler’s Liz is persuasive as his voice of reason and the unwilling victim of her friend’s extremist policy U turn.
But Thomas Mahy, (a name to watch for the future. So impressive in Vincent River at the Park Theatre), is burdened with a cameo as a risible, clichéd, PR man and another as Josh, Newman’s former aide and young lover.
Complementing the cast of six is Steve Broster’s impressive news footage which features soundbites from genuine Westminster players who offer commentary on Newman’s meteoric rise through the House.
Playing throughout the drama, it adds an air of authenticity to the whimsical plot.
An Honourable Man gets my vote, if only for its winning flight of fancy, but I’d abstain from giving it a whole-hearted, ringing endorsement as it peddles some tired and well-worn ideas.
Running at the White Bear Theatre until December 8.
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