White Bear Theatre, London – until 8 December 2018
Our politics is partisan, quarrelsome, dated in its pattern of two-parties-plus-minnows. A nest of weary careerists, pointless betrayals and illogical loyalties, lined with nervous SPAD-ism and manifesto muddle. So break the mould! We often carelessly cry. Bring on a saner spirit of moderate co-operation. But what happens when you break a mould? Might you end up with a terrible mess of melting jelly, dripping in all directions? Or in another image, a brick made, as the Bible warns they shouldn’t be, utterly without straw?
Enough with the metaphors. Michael McManus – writer, formerly of the Press Complaints Commission and IPSO, has been a special adviser in three government departments over decades and made valiant attempts at getting selected himself. He knows the mould, and how mouldy it can get. So this fascinating, timely play is steeped in bitter experience.
Not that it is embittered: indeed there’s a pleasing streak of idealism in his imagining of what might happen a year or so from now. Interestingly, it doesn’t matter whether we’ve had a hard, soft, or non-Brexit because as it makes clear we’ll still be fretting about the NHS, transport, crime, the borders, free speech, the EU’s attitude, all that. Its hero is Joe Newman, (Timothy Harker) who has been de-selected in the Corbyn age and re-elected as independent Labour on Teesside.
Joe is a sweet, slightly shy, faintly camp voice of well-meant moderation, who once was in love with Josh (Thomas Mahy), a cross, hirsute Momentum gorilla who is now his enemy. On his team is the forceful Anne (Lisa Bowerman), a young thrusting intern Sam, the older Maggie, and his sensible, kindly “failed fringe actress” neighbour Liz: a lovely blowzy performance by Dee Sadler. So it begins with banter and excitement, which grows into talk of a new party. And the new party forms fast because, as the veteran Maggie says: “What voters want is to emasculate the political class.” Britain, in a memorable metaphor, is like a cat which doesn’t know whether it wants to be in or out, so just sits around licking its balls.
But a new party – as Shirley Williams warned before forming one eight years later – risks having “no roots, no principles, no philosophy and no values”. And poor Newman, in a series of alarming sessions with hyped-up advisers scribbling on blackboard walls, finds himself dragged to and fro, promising to sort out special needs, schools, hospital matrons, Scotland, knife crime, housing, banks – the lot. Ann, a tough egg, draws lines from all of these challenges to the dread word – “Immigration”.
Only Maggie quotes Mencken, warning him against crazy populist promises : “For every complex problem there is an answer which is simple, clear, and wrong”. By the second half Newman hears himself sounding alternately like Farage and Blair, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Benn. They worry about his image too much: “It might help if you pretend to like football” “But I do..” . We watch the polls on screen (there are plenty of TV bulletins throughout, including one with Ken Clarke in it, sounding just like himself).
At one point when his new party’s popularity is sagging poor Joe loses his temper with a heckler and lays into him physically, and to everyone’s slight dismay this raises his ratings no end. One cannot choose one’s followers any more than one’s enemies in politics , and some will be thugs. Or terrorists, no spoilers. Suffice to say I enjoyed it no end, in a terrified sort of way. All it needs to add to the frisson would be a figure in dark glasses, an International Rescue Committee baseball-cap and heavy false moustache , ordering his fish and chips at the White Bear in a suspiciously familiar voice. . We all have to stare bravely into the centre-party abyss, do we not?
Box Office www. whitebeartheatre.co.uk
0333 012 4963 to 8 dec