Edinburgh Fringe 2018
Imagine Brexit, the Trump administration and a Russian troll walked into a bar… The punchline is…reality. A Beginner’s Guide to Populism is a satire of sound bites and xenophobia, expressing the danger of stoking a community’s ignorance, fear and hatred.
A Beginner’s Guide to Populism examines the complexities of egoism, tribalism and the greater good. Career politician, Antonia Morgan, believes that Little Middleton should be subsumed by Middleton, which would facilitate trade and a mutually beneficial relationship for all those involved. The figures support her beliefs and she even ran on this position in her campaign.
However, she is easily wooed by the prospects of power. Cue Jeremy Taylor, a sideways smile and quick wit are all it takes to convince her to abandon ship. Actress Isabel Palmstierna impersonates rather than portrays anxiety. Her dramatic presentation of artificial nerves doesn’t quite land the jokes. In contrast, Will Underwood’s, Jeremy Taylor, is an understated stereotype – a conniving puppeteer without any distinctive personality traits. While Palmstierna does not inspire empathy, Underwood lacks the charm or intelligence his character so clearly craves. Overall, there is a distinct lack of development with regards to the tone of the show, the characters’ relationships with one another, their long-term motivations or even their basic needs. Luckily, the performers are somewhat redeemed by the many laughs and moments of levity they inspire. This comedy is best when derived by surprising human moments, like sticking a pencil in your nose out of boredom.
The show starts off when Taylor convinces Morgan that she could be the next, “bright young face of the party.” She quickly concedes and spends the next scene convincing people of LIttle Middleton that she not only supports but champions their decision to remain independent of Central Middleton. At first, Morgan is seen as an outsider by Little Middleton. She decides to hold a debate and after reasonable conversations appear ineffective she turns to rabble-rousing through xenophobic hate speech a la Tomi Lahren. This sets off a chain of violent events lead by militant dictator-in-waiting Brian Barber. Barber facilitates a coup. Council member Colleen Cousins is unceremoniously expelled from office and Morgan is appointed Little Middleton’s leader. The chaotic disassembly of political structures spirals – according to Barber, “big problems call for big men with big ideas.”
Barber, played by Chris Townsend is a nuanced and complex character. Townsend stirs sympathy in the audience. Barber appears impassioned in his sense of “justice”, fearing he won’t be heard if a large commotion isn’t made. Insightfully, he admits “we always think about the rest of the country, do they think about us?”
Conceptually stirring, with a smart and fresh framework, the show runs hot and cold. It attempts to tackle the difficult balance of representing the will of the people with personal values and factual information. Unfortunately, the lack of nuance and connection between characters lets the larger concept down. Like much of the western world’s politics, it was a good idea but not the best execution.