Tag Archives: political theatre

Education, Education, Education – Trafalgar Studios

Education, Education, Education - The Wardrobe Ensemble

The Spice Girls are touring, slip dresses and in fashion and the Verve’s Bittersweet Symphony is making the news, you might be forgiven for thinking we’ve gone back 20-years. In fact, the pop culture of the 90s is having a mini renaissance where its influence can be felt across cultural boundaries, not least in The Wardrobe Ensemble’s new play Education, Education, Education that makes its way to Trafalgar Studios after a critically acclaimed appearance at the Edinburgh Festival.  Specifically, they take us back to one day in 1997, the 2 May to be precise the day everything changed.

The landslide New Labour victory that made Tony Blair Prime Minister, at the time, felt like a turning point in modern history. 18 years of Conservative rule had been categorically swept away on a tide of optimism, the popularity of a young charismatic leader and promises of Cool Britannia. The future would be fresh, youthful and provide greater opportunities for everyone. “Education, Education, Education” Blair proclaimed would be the new Government’s priority, and after years of underfunding and decline for Britain’s schools, things could only get better.

The Wardrobe Ensemble set their 70-minute play in the full-flush of that hope, the day after the election when anything and everything was possible. This frames the drama, but it’s the daily business of the school that comes immediately under scrutiny. Six teachers and a receptionist face “muck-up day” and presentation assembly, the final day of school for Year 11 pupils about to begin study leave before sitting their GCSEs. Disastrous pranks, disciplinary problems, variable teaching methods, staff rivalries and broken promises all feature in one chaotic day that highlights the gap between ministerial rhetoric and life in the classroom.

The play uses a narrator, a German teaching assistant who arrives at Wordsworth School on that very day, speaking directly to the audience and relaying his impressions both of the Britain he has come to admire and the disordered nature of school life for staff and pupils. On one level Education, Education, Education is a light comedy, full of nostalgia for the music of the decade which plays in the Trafalgar Studios bar and auditorium, as well as peppered throughout the play. But politics lurks beneath the surface and like The History Boys and Labour of Love, this is far from a ringing endorsement of the Blair administration, and in fact builds on Bennett’s technique by looking briefly at the future consequences for particular individuals and the physical school building, insisting that despite D Ream’s promise very little actually got better after all.

For anyone who was there, what hits you first is Ben Grant’s sound design, piped through the building and blasted loudly as you take your seat. M-People, Oasis, Gina G, Celine Dion, the Verve, Suede and Take That as well a series of dance classics are among the songs that will take you right back to your 90s common room or first club night experiences. Before the play starts it quite smartly creates a false idea that somehow the world was better then, simpler and more united. With references to the Spice Girls and the UK’s last Eurovision winner Katrina and the Waves, we are primed to agree with headmaster Mr Mills, 22-years ago we were living in a much better time.

But The Wardrobe Ensemble have far more to say than that and a key debate focuses on the faux surety of British concepts of identity and the extent to which we too readily believe our own myth-making. Again and again in the post-war era we keep tripping over hollow ideas of past national glories, of an Empire, military victories and hundreds of years of history that mark out our national identity. Despite the dictates of Cool Britannia, of musicians and rock-star film directors flocking to New Labour parties by 1997, the writers argue, Britain was no longer as special as we imagine, which, as teaching assistant Tobias (James Newton) drily points out, we need to make some kind of peace with.

This idea plays out at the micro-level through the story of disruptive pupil Emily Greenside (also the name of the actor) whose behaviour becomes increasingly erratic when denied a school trip to York with violent consequences. The culmination of this plot leads to one teacher insisting to the assembled group that none of the pupils are special, at least no more special than anyone else, take away the school structure, the ranking within classes and underneath everyone is the same.

At the macro-level, The Wardrobe Ensemble use English teacher Susan Belltop-Doyle’s (Jesse Meadows) lessons in which the pupils enact scenes from Arthurian legend to make points about the inculcation of those damaging national myths. In one of the oddest sections Susan hallucinates King Arthur who comes to tell her that our entire concept of identity is based on a false premise. Its silly and jarring but it skewers the polarising preoccupation with Englishness and sovereignty that led to Brexit, and continues to fuel the right-wing leave parties that feed on these emotional attachments to a largely imagined past.

All of this is subtly – and not so subtly – woven through the show, but directors Jesse Jones and Helena Middleton use a variety of interesting physical theatre approaches to entertain the crowd. In a highly stylised and fast-moving production, the cast are brought together at key moments to say or enact the same gesture simultaneously. Sometimes furniture is rapidly spun around the stage to form classrooms and other locations in a quick montage of scenes introducing Tobias to the subject’s taught at the school, at other times they use dance and movement to energise the quick-fire nature of the piece as we skim through a not very usual day-in-the-life of a 90s school.

There is a comic-book caper to some of the show’s scenes which whirl through in colourful forms, emphasised by Katharine Williams’ lighting design and the two movable doors of Lucy Sierra’s minimal but creative staging. And Education, Education, Education is a lot of fun, references to Tamagotchis and Titanic fly around a combustible staff room where everyone avoids the P.E. teacher’s pleas for a pub outing, secretly hates the over-enthusiastic headmaster and have ill-advised liaisons after the election victory. At times, it paints in big, broad strokes, with plot and character development considerably simplified creating several unlikely comic contrivances to drive the story in the right direction.

Yet, what we see in the staff room is the history of education played out in microcosm as two streams of thought clash as unresolvedly as they have for a hundred and fifty years. Educationalist Friedrich Fröbel’s nineteenth-century belief in individuality, learning through play and personalised curricula for each child is manifest in Tom England’s Mr Mills, the enthusiastic headmaster who is always a very physical presence, moving his body in waves and gesticulating wildly to indicate his softer approach and belief that the New Labour victory heralds a new dawn in school funding and individual pupil investment. He clashes with his disciplinarian deputy who equally vehemently believes that, like the Victorian schoolmasters who preceded her, that rules and punishments are the only way to create a valuable member of society.

They are supported by Tom Brennan’s Paul McIntyre whose unchecked but unapologetic personal choices inadvertently create much of the drama as he unreasonably denies Emily her trip to York and fights with Ben Vardy’s gauche P.E. teacher Mr Pashley kept on the periphery of the teaching community and amusingly asked to cover a French lesson. Meadows’s Sue is the archetype of the wafty teacher who loses control but connects with the children, while Greenslade’s version of herself is filled with teenage injustice and emotional responses she cannot control, while nonetheless showing the cycle of denial and punishment that stoke her behaviour.

However light its frame, ultimately this play has serious points to make about the short-termist approaches to education funding used cynically as a political tool to win voters. The cost, The Wardrobe Ensemble argue, are the pupils and pointedly it is them and not the teachers who appear on mass to dance enthusiastically to D Ream’s rallying call in the final moments. Pictures of the actors as they were in the 1990s flash across the back of the stage to make us think about the consequences of these policies. Those children became the actors in front of us, but in their pupil characters their future is yet to be shaped. Education, Education, Education suggests pupils should be sent into the adult world full of hope and possibility, we know now looking back that the optimism of 1997 faded as fast as the funding for schools. Without it and for as long as we refuse to face-up to who we really are as a nation, whether they know it or not, our schoolchildren don’t stand a chance.

Education, Education, Education is at the Trafalgar Studios until 29 June with tickets from £25. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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NT Live Screening: The Madness of King George III

The Madness of King George III - NT Live

The notion of monarchs as divine beings may have died on the scaffold with Charles I but the idea of the Royal Family as somehow “other” persists. We seem strangely delighted to learn that they have the same human foibles and failings as the rest of us, that life in its different ways has been difficult for all of them, that however much wealth, power of privilege we believe they have, tough choices have had to be made, terrible events lived through and hard lessons learned. And while many of our monarchs are consigned to historical caricature, they too were once rounded and complex people balancing their constitutional responsibilities with a myriad of political, personality and family pressures that shaped their reign.

Interest in the real people beyond the symbolic role has been revived in programmes such as The Crown, exploring the effect of great events on our most famous family. War, acts of Parliament and social change are important, but the way to engage audiences with them is tell human stories about their effects. Shakespeare knew that only too well and his monarchical plays last because they set aside the great events (which predominantly happen off-stage) and focus instead on dysfunctional relationships, personal betrayals and the psychology of Kingship where the individual must or cannot subjugate their inner self to the role of sovereign, as Henry V tries and Richard II fails to do. This pull between the needs of the body politic and the physical body of the ruler is fruitful ground for drama.

The revival of Alan Bennett’s 1991 classic The Madness of King George III at Nottingham Playhouse couldn’t then be more relevant, a play that speaks to our interest in the people who govern us as well as concerns about fitness to rule, mental health and its treatment. Notably screened via NT Live last week, this is a first for the National in its attempt to represent regional productions among its London-centric output. While the process of screening plays is now a well-established practice, and one that is becoming increasingly ambitious in terms of the productions it films and the international venues to which they are transmitted, for the actor, the presence of cameras presents a number of different challenges that can affect everything from the blocking to the scale of the individual’s performance.

Adam Penford’s production came alive on screen as surely as it must have for the audiences able to witness it first-hand, and what you lose in the communal atmosphere and immediacy of being physically present among the actors waiting to entertain you, you gain in a proximity to the action denied even to the front row. The NT Live cameramen have become an extra character on stage, panning between the wide-angled shots that show the big set pieces and evolving stage management, and the intimate close-ups that so few get to experience which are more redolent of cinema. What we see on screen hundreds if not thousands of miles away is a distillation of the director’s ultimate vision, a broader canvas often skilfully boiled down to a series of shots chosen by the NT Live team that usually reflect the decisions taken independently about what views are the most appropriate at any given time. Crucially, as a cinema-goer rather than a member of the live theatre audience, what you see and when is chosen for you by someone not involved directly in the original production.

The result is nonetheless impressive and despite a slow start, the barrier between cinema audience and the Nottingham stage soon dissolves. The intimacy of Penford’s production comes to the fore, emphasising the savage treatments meted-out to the ailing King George in an era that still mixed Enlightenment thinking and scientific endeavour with medieval beliefs in leeching poisons from the body to restore balance. In close-up, those seem even more torturous, burning the man’s body with cups, letting his blood and forcing his digestive and excretory system in an attempt to remove the possession that grips him. Penford doesn’t shy away from the cruelty of these procedures, suggesting both the thin veneer of respectability that society operated under, stylish, mannered, held by the conventions of politeness, but still capable of outrageous barbarism to the physical body in the name of medicine.

While Dr Willis is a perceived saviour, guaranteeing a cure with alternative means and a more nuanced understanding of the human mind, his methods seem no less distasteful. Bennett gives him plenty of dialogue that references “breaking-in” like a horse or wild creature needing to be tamed rather than an anointed monarch. The drama of the King’s restraint at the end of the first half is powerfully achieved, a clear affront to body, dignity and majesty that still shocks, and while Zadok the Priest is remarkably overused, it has a cinematic impact that signals a notable change of tone at the this point in the story.

Of course, this is also a political play about the thinly balanced majority of a governing party that is all to resonant in every age, and not least our present circumstances. What comes across so effectively in the NT Live screening is how disposable the person of the monarch really has been, susceptible to political tides and corrupt motives regardless of their status. The subplot involving the Prince of Wales and his Westminster ally Charles James Fox essentially attempting to bring down the existing regime is not a particularly subtle one with the potential for plenty of panto villainy – which is indeed how Nicholas Hytner’s arguably definitive 1995 film portrayed them, a pair of grotesques making a selfish play for power.

This production is a tad softer, and while the disruptive effects of “the fat one” and his co-conspirators is still played as a dastardly plot with little but self-aggrandisement at its heart, the role of the King and incumbent Prime Minister, Mr Pitt, are by no means heroic. Penford draws attention to how the deep divide between father and son ripples through this constitutional crisis to disastrous effect and with fault on both sides. Likewise, the dour Pitt is less a leader than a reed blowing in the wind, resting on past glories and unable to encourage the unification of party so desperately needed – sound familiar?

One of the advantages of an NT Live screening like this one, with its close-ups and focus on individual reaction, is to show just how personal the political was in this era, how significantly the day-to-day business of government is affected by the personality and sanguinity of the monarch. Even in an era before public enfranchisement, the importance of charismatic statesmanship in the building of alliances between party members and across the governing aristocracy was vital, a little bonhomie could go a very long way. As much as The Madness of King George III is a story about the cruel effects of poorly understood medical procedure on the body of the sovereign, this NT Live showing in conjunction with Penford’s directorial approach suggests that any kind of physical or constitutional weakness creates an opportunity for others to fill the void in a ruthless and unsympathetic grab for power. Kings may need time to recover but politics waits for no man.

The fact Mark Gatiss shines in the title role should be of little surprise and while his other stage performances have been more obviously comic, there is a far greater tragicomic balance in King George that builds on the character-roles he has played on television While ethical questions persist about the portrayal of mental health and changing expectations since Bennett penned the play in the early 1990s, Gatiss finds just the right balance between the regal leader commanding court and country with practised ease and the slow dissolution of mind that undoes the King’s grasp of himself over time. Crucially, George retains his knowledge of people and place, able to name everyone in his presence but cannot control his reaction or the speed with which brain and speech connect, which Gatiss shows with distinction.

Here, the presence of cameras is Gatiss’s ally, allowing him to display the subtle expressions and flickers of thought that you would never see from the back of the stalls. Already a consummate performer on TV and film, Gatiss shows how to pitch a performance simultaneously to the top of the balcony and to the intimate cinema audience, merging the big gestures of outrage and anger with the psychological effects of his condition and medical torture that create plenty of pathos. His attempts to regain control and frustration with himself are extremely sympathetic, while the humbleness that develops alongside his recovery becomes very moving as George learns that entitlement means nothing without kindness. The shock of his own fragility and the reconciliation process that should make him a more human monarch mark this as easily Gatiss’s best performance.

Equally skilled in managing stage and screen acting is the ever-wonderful Adrian Scarborough as the blunt Dr Willis. Such a superb character actor, the production actively steps-up a notch with his arrival towards the end of Act One with his no-nonsense approach that seems as controversial as it was effective. There is something independent in Scarborough’s portrayal that marks the doctor as quite a different influence from the court and political factions, refusing to be swayed by anything but his own belief in the science of his method, and a certainty of mind that borders on arrogance.

Yet, the audience remains largely on his side, almost preferring his advocacy of restraint and control to the horribly brutal leeching and burning caused by his fellow doctors. Scarborough’s Willis never asks to be liked but remains certain that he will cure the King, giving enough command that we believe him. Yet his own psychological state is not for discussion, so Scarborough ensures that the man we see is only a scientist, with everything else deliberately closed-off, even from the intrusive glare of the NT Live camera.

The surrounding cast have a more mixed experience with the cameras; Debra Gillett brings spousal affection to the role of Queen Charlotte, exasperated by her husband’s failing state and exerting a maternal protection that is quite affecting. Nicholas Bishop’s emotionless Pitt displays plenty of world-weary resignation as he desperately clings to power, but Amanda Hadingue in the dual role of court doctor Sir Lucas Pepys and Charles James Fox, along with Stephanie Jacob as Sir George Baker and Sheridan are a little stagey up-close, their comic buffoonery playing to the bigger audience in the room rather than the physical proximity of the cinema screen.

With plenty of enthusiastic reviews and the honour of an NT Live showing, a West End transfer for this Nottingham Playhouse Production shouldn’t be ruled out, capitalising as it does on our ongoing interest in humanising the Royal Family. With a change of monarch relatively close at hand, any new sovereign is something of an unknown quantity which, even within the limited powers they now hold, has consequences right across government. The story of George III and his son tells that whatever you think of monarchy as an institution, an established but indisposed king might be preferable to a louche one – better the devil you know!

The Madness of King George has now concluded its run at the Nottingham Playhouse, but details of NT Live Encore screenings throughout December are available on the website. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Quiz as State of the Nation Drama – Noel Coward Theatre

Quiz by Johan Persson

When you hold a mirror up to our society what can you see? The obvious things perhaps; an obsession with social media, selfies and surface, the continual loosening of social responsibilities, and a nation divided as its struggles to reconcile its continual attempts to look backwards and forwards at the same time. But look deeper and there are cracks everywhere, in every system, every support service, in every pillar of our social structure, and you start to wonder where did it all go wrong? Our greatest political playwrights have always interpreted the times we live in, and, as Quiz transfers to the West End, James Graham’s insightful reflections on crucial moments in post-war history have fast become a vital resource in understanding who we are.

In a little over a year, Graham has had four highly regarded plays running in the West End, three of which, since September, have been entirely new work. It’s an outstanding achievement, almost without comparison in modern theatre, and after picking up his first Olivier Award last night for Labour of Love (plus a Supporting Actor award for Bertie Carvel’s turn in Ink), this is a good time to reflect on what has been an astonishing year, one in which Graham has found a unique interplay between political purpose and popular style.

This House, which has had a remarkable lifespan since its premiere in 2012 and is currently on national tour, showed us the marked difference between political self-interest and genuine government, where staying in power at all costs outstrips the business of passing legislation for the greatest good. Set in the 1970s at a moment of upheaval that shifted British politics to the right, into Thatcher’s willing arms, and changed it forever, in This House Graham shows us why our democratic system now feels so remote from the people it governs, with constituency representation frequently losing out to individual ambition and Party directive.

This is exactly the theme of Labour of Love, in which Graham pits New against Old Labour in one particular midlands constituency over 20 years to show us the deep division and confliction of purpose that runs through our political parties. When a shiny young man with a bright Ministerial future is parachuted into a safe Labour seat in the mid-1990s, it causes considerable upset for the more traditional left-leaning local constituency office. Over two decades we observe the problems caused by MPs treading water until they can get somewhere better and Labour’s failure to bridge the precipice that still runs down the centre of the Party.

And finally with Ink, Graham explained the rise and rise of the tabloid, and its unshakeable hold on every kind of political and popular thinking. Again, using the crucial period 1969-70 when Rupert Murdoch purchased the newspaper and set its editor Larry Lamb a target to beat its nearest rival, the pair essentially opened Pandora’s Box, unleashing every base and questionable journalistic impulse to create a public appetite for sleaze and scandal we are far from abating even 50 years later. Crucially, Graham shows us, that the fourth estate is an entirely unelected group of people with little but sales figures and click bait in mind, and undergoes almost no scrutiny, but their continual intervention and control of public opinion wields a fearsome power that challenges the independence of many of our oldest institutions.

Collectively, this is a body of work that tells us that much is broken, that the once enviable clarity of our democratic system and freedom of the press have curdled, where the gap between the government and the governed has never felt wider. None of it, Graham suggests is beyond hope, its all still worth fighting for, but that there are crucial moments in history – much like the one we’re living through now – where there is a chance to change things for the better, because getting it wrong will lead to decades of rot. And throughout, Graham asks questions about the power of the individual to effect change, where even the best intentions can forge an unexpected future.

So, to Quiz and the power of the television media to thwart or even misdirect our justice system. Transferring from Chichester where it opened to rave reviews, Quiz is about fluctuating concepts of truth in a world of fake news and trial by television. What does justice mean in this new environment and does it have anything to do with truth and fairness? At the heart of Quiz is a debate about the nature of innocence and the extent to which our legal system, founded on the principle that guilt must be proven beyond doubt, is subject to the highest bidder, where scant circumstantial coincidence can be contorted to suggest an alternative story. Quiz effectively sets the near powerless individual against the might of a TV company with the resources to influence not just the outcome of a trial but also our collective memory of an incident none of us ever saw.

Mention the name Charles Ingram and your first thought will be millionaire cheat. But that perception, Graham argues, has been manufactured by a powerful media of newspapers and television, and embedded by 15 years of mythology. With only a few small tweaks since its Chichester run, Quiz is still as sharp and exciting as it was 6 months ago (see previous review here), presenting the case for the prosecution in the first half and the case for the defence in the second, based on the book Bad Show by Bob Woffinden and James Plaskett (well worth a read if you want more detail on the case).

Getting a West End transfer right is not always easy, but director Daniel Evans and designer Robert Jones have clearly thought carefully about how best to bring their ¾ -round production into the proscenium arch theatre. Fitting perfectly onto the slightly adapted Noel Coward stage, which has been turned into a TV studio with onstage seating, Jones’s design reflects the exuberant glitz of the TV game show, a brightly lit world of neon cubes, flashing panels and multiple screens to relay the drama from every angle.

Some additions include a new warm-up act, played by the chameleonic Kier Charles, to start the two halves, reinforcing the falsity of the gameshow set-up, nodding to the mask performers wear in public, while crucially (and finally) delivering those pub quiz answers at the start of Act Two which were absent from the Chichester version. But most importantly, the warm-up act creates the tone of the show, the fundamental purpose of which is to bring the audience into the action from the start. This is no passive West End play where you sit back and receive a performance, but through the pub quiz round, an opportunity to appear in the montages and the chance to vote on Ingram’s guilt using the electronic devices attached to every seat, the audience is constantly asked to play along, to think and pass judgement on what you have seen, much as you would if you read the ‘evidence’ in a newspaper.

And you can certainly feel the auditorium responding to Graham’s dramatic techniques more actively than most West End shows. People engage with each other as the baton is handed back to us to make decisions, but also, given the addictive nature of the Millionaire format, people mutter as they try to answer the questions in the reconstructed TV scenes or in the wonderful section where the Ingram’s test their popular culture knowledge by guessing the karaoke tune and identifying classic characters from Coronation Street, almost as if they were watching a game show at home on the sofa. How interesting an NT Live screening of this play would be – introducing the screen element to a concept that deliberately comments on how we use screens to make cursory assessments of truth and justice.

Graham’s work is always full of wonderfully observed pop culture references and a warm nostalgia for the cultural past, but in Quiz these really come into their own, and you can feel the audience’s delight as Graham walks us through the wider context of the Ingram case. The fantastic gameshow montage is still a high point, and while Brucie may have been excised to make way for other content, there is still so much charm in the recreated version of The Price is Right and Bullseye, now even more poignant given the passing of the great Jim Bowen since the Chichester run. And while you can feel Graham gleefully revelling in his childhood memories, it also evokes the same connection for much of the room, of a simpler time that was clearly the forerunner of the madness of Who Wants to be a Millionaire and our more recent obsession with constructed reality TV.

Daniel Evans’s direction is light and effortless, with the action moving so effortlessly that 2.5 hours speeds by. But the fun elements of the story remain perfectly in balance with the play’s serious purpose, so the tension builds carefully in the Millionaire scenes and there are several poignant moments where the once colourful world is starkly lit by Tim Lutkin as the consequences of the action and the real nature of ‘justice’ are truly felt.

The performances have deepened since the earlier run, and Kier Charles almost steals the show with his hilarious portrayal of a collection of much-loved TV hosts. From Leslie Crowther and Bowen to Chris Tarrant, Charles clearly relishes every moment, amplifying the tics and mannerisms of each of these well-loved presenters with often hilarious results. Gavin Spokes as Major Ingram has found greater depths of emotion in the role, so that now the damaging effects of his time in the hot seat are considerably more poignant, while quiz-loving Diana played by Stephanie Street is a tad more ambiguous.

Two further notable points also emerge from the West End run of Quiz ; first that London audiences are considerably more cynical than those in Chichester, and while there is a swing towards Not Guilty after the second half, the statistics for recent performances show it is far closer to 50:50 than it was in West Sussex; Second, in reality the way justice is dispensed can be wildly disproportionate to the crime committed. While the Ingrams may have been given relatively short suspended sentences to accompany their guilty verdicts with the need for justice to ‘seen to be done’, the wider response was ludicrous. Graham leaves us to question whether they really deserved to be hounded by the press and the public everywhere they went, to have their children bullied at school, to have their pets shot and for Charles Ingram’s much-loved army career to be terminated, all for supposedly cheating on a quiz show? Multiple lives irreparably damaged for arguably a minor infraction?

Like the plays that have gone before, Graham has taken a key moment in TV history and asked us to think more carefully about what it means and why it set society on a new, less worthy, path. Justice doesn’t begin and end in court rooms any more, and while the media can whip up a frenzy and bring the full might of the mob down on the powerless individual, there seems to be little hope of fairness. If you leave this show discussing the case and the way in which we all jump to conclusions, then Graham has done his job because challenging how we all respond to the institutions that wield societal power is the only way to improve them. As for Quiz itself, as a theatrical experience, let’s leave the final word to Jim Bowen – super, smashing, great!

Quiz is at the Noel Coward Theatre until 16 June. Tickets start at £15 with day seats available for £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


This House – National Theatre Tour

 

This House - National Theatre Tour

As we wade through the deepening quagmire that has become Westminster politics, it’s hard not to look back at the Coalition government of 2010-2015 as a brighter more optimistic time in modern Britain. On the surface at least, the hung Parliament offered a chance to put party division aside, forcing politicians to work together and finally reflect what seemed to be a growing public disillusion with opposition for opposition’s sake and the petty playground tactics of party politics. No one thought it would last the year, but from the outside the Conservative-Liberal Coalition government seemed optimistic, fresh and, coinciding with the London Olympics, it was a time of proper compromise, national pride and inclusion.

Of course it wasn’t. As every A-level politics teacher will tell you, coalitions mean instability in which someone always loses, in this case the Liberal Democrats who were decimated at the 2015 election. But from where we are now – divided and uncertain with shambolic leadership – how halcyonic those days of the Coalition now seem. They happen so rarely that they fascinate us, before 2010 the last coalition government was almost 40 years before from 1974-1979, a scrappy affair in which the Whips kept the Labour Party in government by the skin of their teeth for just shy of a full term. Drawing a direct parallel between the two eras, This House, first performed in 2012, and currently on a nationwide tour, is a fascinating insight into “the deals business”.

It’s been a least 5 minutes since someone last heaped praise on writer James Graham, and with two 2018 Olivier nominations for his most recent West End successes, Ink and Labour of Love, and the transfer of his superb new play Quiz in a fortnight, it’s a good opportunity to look back at where it all began, the also Olivier nominated This House. Well, not quite where it all began, there was plenty of admirable fringe work, but Graham’s first big West End show enjoyed runs in two of the auditoria at the National Theatre in 2012 and a 2015 revival in Chichester which then transferred to the Garrick in 2016. Having managed to miss all of these, and a little late to the political party, the current National Theatre tour, which runs until June, docked at the Cambridge Arts Theatre last week, and proves a well-researched and engaging response to our recent political history.

Its 1974 and Labour scrape into power with a wafer-thin majority which, for its team of Whips, means a tough 5 years lay ahead as they are forced to make deals not only with the smaller opposition parties but with their own MPs just to get bills through the House. As they cling to power, it becomes harder to keep the ship afloat, and when an accusation of cheating tears up the informal rule book the Tory Whips amplify hostilities. Is staying in power enough if you can’t actually govern?

Graham’s play utilises three structural pillars to give shape to the rather circular business of Government activity, with the story outlining the many rounds of debate and manipulation required to achieve a majority vote on bill after bill. First, the play limits itself to two main locations, the opposing offices of the main party Whips, where all information, news and drama is distilled effectively through the experiences of these rooms. It ensures the focus of the play remains tightly on this set of decisive characters who we come to know well, while heightening both the dramatic tension and comedic effect as plans and their outcomes are cooked-up and debated by each side.

These are then batted back-and-forth as successive scenes cut from one side to the other, occasionally even completing each other’s sentences or stories like an elaborate and fast-moving game of tennis. Graham avoids repetitiveness by inserting merged scenes where votes are won and lost in the house itself, and a thematic section on the physical and moral decrepitude staged behind the famous Parliamentary clock-face. All of this serves to create a sense of the wider political activity beyond the walls of the office – one of the most successful aspects of This House is the credible world it creates, that all the talking genuinely reflects a high stakes game being played by hundreds of MPs around the building.

Second, Graham uses the role of the Speaker of the House to act as our guide to events, so just as he does in the Chamber, here he announces the constituency name of every MP to appear on the stage. This gives the audience both a sense of the formalities of Parliamentary life and the enormous job of the Whips in trying to balance the far-reaching needs of around 600 elected representatives trying to earn favour for their constituencies or personal advancement in the party. As a theatrical tool, it also allows the cast to play multiple roles in a series of small cameos while helping the audience keep track.

Finally, there are the aspects of construction that have since become hallmarks of Graham’s entertaining style – the integration of music, popular culture references and hyper-real montages that demonstrate a flair for popular engagement. These were less notable in Labour of Love but Ink and Quiz married serious debate with a lightness of touch that rarely combine so well. This House has some full-cast choreographed numbers, quick-fire tableaux as desperate deals are made on the hoof or as the sick are wheeled in to vote, while the onstage band visible leave their hippy stylings behind to embrace the emergence of punk as the 70s wear all. All small but careful touches that add to the richness of the work and the era it reflects.

At its heart, This House is a debate about the purpose of government, when clinging on to power becomes more important than doing any of the things the party was elected for. As the deals become harder to put together, we’re shown the growing separation between constituency and party, between toeing the line and personal conscience, between active government and just keeping the others out. None of it is very pretty or even admirable, but there’s still a sense that the British style of democracy, when it works, is ultimately irreplaceable.

Amidst all of this, Graham still manages to create a set of central characters that the audience can invest in, regardless of their political allegiance. Chief among them is Martin Marquez’s Bob Mellish, a tough working-class bruiser whose realistic management of the Whips office belies a passionate love of the party he’s devoted his career to. Marquez’s sharp characterisation sets the tone for those who fall into his orbit, and it is Bob’s grit that is keeping the Government afloat.

He’s ably supported by a diverse team of largely northern MPs who share his determination. James Gaddas as permanent deputy Walter Harrison is gruff and overly sure of himself but develops meaningfully as the play unfolds, with a deep buried heart and conscience that begin to beat louder. As the first female Whip, Natalie Grady’s Ann Taylor forges ahead growing in confidence as the years pass, introducing a less confrontational style that still produces results – while Bob and Walter may represent the past, Ann is the future. Grady’s Ann well signifies the clash of idealism with the reality of governing, so like her colleagues must eventually confront the ways in which her own dedication to the party obstructs rather than supports democracy.

On the other team, the three Tory Whips couldn’t be more different. But despite their refined manners and expensive suits, Graham avoids caricature with an equally interesting exploration of their dedication to party cause and entitlement to rule that is challenged by Labour’s shaky term in office. William Chubb’s Humphrey Atkins, like Bob Mellish, is a man out of time, representing a style of politics and fair play that is rapidly disappearing. His contempt for the Government is clear with a series of stinging lines, brilliantly landed by Chubb, that present a man finding opposition unfathomable, a blip in the natural order of things.

But it is Matthew Pidgeon’s Jack Weatherill who develops most, the Tory Deputy Whip whose time in opposition brings into question the whole purpose of his role. Pidgeon subtly relays Weatherill’s growing disillusion with party politics and the internal cost to his own self-assurance that comes from increasingly desperate tactics to frustrate the Government. A clever mirror for Walter Harrison, these two very different men start to question what good they’ve really done in a lifetime of party service.

You care about all of these people, regardless of their party stance, and what could have been a collection of geographical stereotypes, becomes a true representation of the country. The wider cast play around 30 constituency MPs, some just after a new carpet or sofa for their office, one who fakes his own death, one arrested for murder, one breastfeeding in Parliament, some from Scotland or Northern Ireland who need to put nationalism before personal gain, plenty of sick and dying, and a few passionately committed to their socialist roots who vote against their centre-moving party including Louise Ludgate’s broadly comic MP who’d rather pay a £20 fine than go against her conscience. We don’t need to know any of these people well, but they are an indication of the wider tide of Westminster and the competing needs that both sets of Whips must manage on every single vote. And it’s a lovely touch to have a few of them go on an audience meet-and-greet during the interval.

Graham’s play is more than a historical documentary, it is a living, breathing evocation of Parliamentary life that has plenty to say about the male-dominated, macho world of party politics that pits ideology against practicality every single day. And while it focuses on the increasingly unstable attempt to make laws, the wider context of party in-fighting, leadership challenges on both sides and the changing demographic of Labour MPs is as much about the here and now as it is the late 1970s where the shadow of Thatcher and irreparable change looms ominously.

The grubbiness of the system Graham presents in This House explains how we ended up here today, and despite growing apathy with all parties, Graham’s writing makes you care about politics again, makes you believe it matters even when it’s broken. Although written in 2012, the cyclical nature of politics means that the play is just as relevant now, with a Government attempting a major democratic change on a tiny majority, having to make unholy alliances just to get things done. The Coalition government of 2010-2015 may seem like a happier time but this is the result, just spare a thought for the poor Whips, the ‘engine-room’ of Parliament who keep it all afloat.

This House is on national tour until 2 June and scheduled to visit Bath, Edinburgh, Nottingham, Birmingham, Salford, Plymouth, Norwich, Malvern, Guilford and Sheffield. Please check local venues for times and prices. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Labour of Love – Noel Coward Theatre

Martin Freeman, Tamsin Grieg and James Graham, Labour of Love

More than 90 years since its first ever period in government, the Labour Party has spent the majority of its existence in opposition and riven by immobilising debates about whether it should honour its left-wing roots or move towards a central populist position. Such intricate divisions are not the preserve of Labour of course – The Conservative Party has torn itself to pieces arguing about Europe on many occasions – but within Labour a fascinating clash of fundamental idealism is a constant feature, and one which writer James Graham looks to explore in his insightful new play Labour of Love.

In a reasonably short time, Graham has become one of our leading proponents of political theatre, commenting not just on the Parliamentary system in plays like This House, but also the wider Establishment in his huge 2017 hit Ink about the early days of The Sun, as well as the forthcoming examination of the television media in Quiz. Graham’s work focuses on crucial moments of change and the ripples that these cause decades later. It always starts with an institution holding power in a present-day scenario and attempts to unpick the various strands that brought about this influence, whether it be the ongoing power of tabloid journalism, or in the case of Labour of Love, understanding the anatomy of a major political party whose current resurgence could be about to break a century-old cycle of behaviour.

The play is set in a safe Labour constituency, examining 27 years of party history using a reverse chronology structure in Act One to take MP David Lyons (Martin Freeman) from results night in the 2017 General Election, right back to his very first win in 1990, with pit stops in 2010 and 2003, while Act Two starts in 1990 and takes the audience right back up to date. And while that sounds rather dry, at the play’s heart is the developing relationship between the moderniser Lyons, a protege of the Blair years, and his election agent Jean (Tamsin Greig), wife of the hard-line leftist MP he replaced.

At the start of the play David and Jean have the exasperated affection of years spent sparring with one another, her keeping the show on the road and challenging his abandonment of party tradition, while David has enjoyed the rollercoaster of Westminster while trying to convince his constituents that being electable and being Labour are not mutually exclusive. Why these people have become who they are and the exact status of their combative relationship is slowly revealed as we travel back to their beginning in an attempt to understand what their future will be.

One of the things that distinguishes Graham as a writer is his ability to construct plays that maintain their narrative drive, drawing the audience into the humanity of his characters while still making significant observations about where power lies in our society. But rather than hammering home his message, Graham utilises a light touch approach to the politics, wrapping it in humour and careful character development.

Construction may seem a basic skill for a playwright, but it’s not as straightforward as it sounds, and Graham is a master at controlling an unfolding story and creating interlocking scenarios that work together to form a complete picture. Ink used a series of overlapping scenes, music segments and abstract elements to conjure up the world of 60s journalism, while in Labour of Love, Graham has four semi-independent stopping points, each with their own mini-plot and cliff-hanger, resolved in the second half, so by the end these fleeting visits to each decisive moment in Labour’s recent history have also satisfactorily coloured-in the 27 years of Jean and David’s lives as well.

Normally you need only turn on the news to see the kind of comical and ridiculous behaviour from our politicians you would never believe if it was on stage, but Labour of Love mines a long satirical traditional of holding our leading officers to account. It is a political farce with plenty of humour and packed-full of audience-pleasing and sharply observed references to pop culture that litter the three decades in which the play takes place. Some of the high points include a complaint from Jean that northerners always get the rough end of the deal, ‘it’s like Game of Thrones’ she quips, and waiting for a fax machine to reveal if David has betrayed the local party in the leadership election. The carefully chosen music from D:Ream’s ‘Thing Will Only Get Better’ to Britney Spears ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’ will  also take you right back in an instant to the four eras created on stage.

Supporting this is Lee Newby’s purposefully drab constituency office set which uses the stage revolve to move between decades. It’s soulless and even in 1990 well worn, grey floor tiles and the same drawer that doesn’t open properly for 30 years. But it’s in the tiny details that the changing period comes to life as fax machines give way to computers with email, boxy televisions with actual Teletext (leading to one audience cry of “bring it back”) become flatscreens, and crucially the image of the then Labour leader changes, framed on the office wall with Jeremy Corbyn looking quite regal in his 2017 photograph – an image clearly chosen with particular care to emphasis his role in debate between left and centre that continues to divide his party while whipping up a popular acclaim.

At the centre of all of this is Tamsin Greig playing Jean Whittaker, replacing Sarah Lancashire at relatively short-notice which led to a week of previews being cut. None of the backstage drama is evident though, and Grieg makes it feel like the part was written especially for her. Old Labour to the core, Jean is both a thorn in David’s side and the person keeping him afloat, never missing an opportunity to score a point. But across the years we see she develops a respect and care for him that becomes surprisingly touching, and under the prickly and deeply sarcastic demeanour, Grieg reveals Jean’s deeper emotions emerging from a lifetime of disappointments and limited opportunities for herself as she serves a succession of argumentative men.

Jean is also passionately devoted to the needs of the community, rather than the demands of the central party, which leads to much of the division with David, giving her a combative shell. But she is also the link between the MP and the grass roots support which she navigates with skill, and Grieg offers a picture of an incredibly smart woman, easily outwitting the smug Londoners, and teaching them the difference between party power and electoral support.

Martin Freeman’s David is actually a genuinely nice man, hugely out of his depth in the safe seat he’s parachuted into. New Labour through and through he’s passionate about making his party electable and frequently campaigns for the compromises needed to win and keep power in Number 10. The pull of local and national politics, is embodied in Freeman’s performance as David struggles to balance the growing loyalty he develops to the people he represents and his greater ambitions for personal authority and a Cabinet role.

As the years go by – or in this case backwards and then forwards again – Freeman shows how the optimism of David’s first election fades over the years, becoming not quite jaded but more aware of the cyclical nature of power and how quickly new initiatives fail, with pointed reference to the closure of a mine that became a data centre which itself became redundant. Freeman’s David is someone trying to do his best in the wrong constituency, torn between an expectant future and the grim reality of brief influence and then obscurity. ‘I’d better brush up on my Paso Doble’ he remarks as the wrong kind of glittery future beckons.

Arguably the supporting characters are little more than sketched, but Rachael Stirling has lots of fun playing David’s snobby London wife Elizabeth, who sneers at his lack of ambition, frequently going head-to-head with Jean and losing. Susan Wokoma and Dickon Tyrrell add texture as grassroots party members who clash with David, but help to create the context against which the two leads exist.

With press night tomorrow, the flow and comic timing – already working well – can only tighten as the run continues. Perhaps it doesn’t quite have the impact of Ink, one of those rare plays that just captures the imagination, the extra magic that separates the 5-star show from the plethora of 4s, but Labour of Love remains a well-constructed and perceptive comedy that explains why political parties so often tear themselves apart. James Graham is fast establishing himself as our leading political playwright, and Labour of Love is full of insight, deep research and with Graham’s distinctive ability to entertainingly interpret post-war history.

Labour of Love is at the Noel Coward Theatre until 2 December 2017. Tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culuralcap1


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