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FringeReview UK 2016

Low Down

Max Stafford-Clark, Out of Joint and producer Karl Sydow return to the Arts Theatre with five political plays designed by Tim Shortall, lit by Jason Taylor and music at the end by Billy Bragg.


Producer Karl Sydow and Out of Joint return to the Arts Theatre with five short plays – two newly commissioned – that take a perspective from Jeremy Corbyn’s constituency, ‘parachuted into the safest seat’ as it’s termed here. Max Stafford-Clark directs with the company’s sharp-etched political verve with some regular actors.

There are three plays not new, but two from last year have hardly been over-exposed and only the first from 2007, by Mark Ravenhill, is at all known.

The Mother

This provocative Brechtian title ushers in Kathryn O’Reilly as Hayley Morrison a mother of forty-three who attempts in the most c-worded language and nose-biting vehemence to prevent two army officers from uttering the words that her son Darren’s dead. It’s inventively funny for a while, but various claims that it’s now dated seem stupefyingly wide of the mark. Unless the current mind-set alters there’ll always be unjust wars and no-hope Darrens will sign up to get killed in them.

O’Reilly has been foul-mouthed before in Our Country’s Good and she’s thrillingly convincing here, a wedge of pain kept down till Joseph Prowen’s hapless and occasionally petulant Private Crawford and Jane Wymark’s tight-lipped Major Dawlish somehow pin her down to listen but still she thwarts them. Her violent reaction’s followed by her sudden tender washing of Crawford’s wound and calling him Darren. The coda though if predictable doesn’t disappoint. It might have Kubler-Ross’s stages of grieving written over it but that doesn’t make it any the less a perennial till we stop sending the poor to fight wars for the rich, rewarded with the ash of words trotted out here by Prowen.

Caryl Churchill: Tickets Are Now On Sale

To describe it takes longer than – O’Reilly’s quick-change Hampstead half of a couple twins with Steve John Shepherd as breakfast chat morphs into semiotics of brand-words, as if taken over by the language of sponsorship where not only language but permission is sponsored. It’s neat and deadly, with a sideways movement on from Blue Heart, and typically compressed ‘late’ period Churchill, in a year she’s premiered two plays and writing a third. At the end there’s permitted gibbering merely, the couple are thought, twitch out words.

Alistair Beaton   The Accidental Leader

Beaton’s written thrillingly for TV on politics. This new play enjoys an up-to-date take on the Labour right’s plots on Corbyn who’s not named but transparently the subject. Bruce Alexander’s Machiavellian Jim a backbencher with a coup and a leader’s song in his heart attempts to cajole a mass resignation from the cabinet. Reluctant Eleanor – Wymark again, and Ollie, Prowen, seem differently disaffected: Eleanor’s not entirely anti-Corbyn, and Ollie isn’t really pro-Jim, just an ambitious PA. There’s exposition of anti-Cotbynite reviews, and some mild defence followed by broadsheet dismissals of their accidental leader’s decency.

They don’t notice left firebrand Nina – O’Reilly again – leader of Impetus (read Momentum) – who’s tumbled them. What we do get is a broad-brush exposition and trashing of the right now, but perhaps in this skit little sense of dialogue and engagement – and there isn’t much in reality. The audience though need to be convinced that Nina’s on the side of right, which is left. The denouement’s predictable but something more revelatory than last week’s headlines about Corbyn seems aching to get out, and Beaton can usually supply it. I hope this is in development.

David Hare Ayn Rand Takes a Stand

Something far stranger and more weirdly brilliant happens in Hare, one of his best pieces of theatre for some time. Gideon (George Osborne, played by Steve John Shepherd) has conjured the spirit of free-market libertarian anti-welfare Ann Mitchell’s fantastical Russian-American Ayn Rand back to earth to corner Theresa (Wymark again).

Before she arrives its clear Rand fancies Gideon as her sex slave, and so things roll on with Mitchell’s Russian-American gravelly lust for arrrrgument and more, with an orange growers’ bouncy metaphor and Gideon’s avowal of the free movement of labour; and matters of purely libertarian stamp. Cue Theresa who arrives, shocked to have her brand of conservatism anatomised by Rand.

This skewers the inherent contradictions at the black heart of conservatism as realized by the government, and if they ever saw this play it might make those portrayed squirm in recognition of basic antipathies laid so openly naked like sinews. If they’re Theresa’s original she might try banning it which would be enormous fun.

Theresa’s against not only free movement but free speech if it impinges on the elite – the only ones allowed it. Rand disputes the term conservatism since this in fact skewers all freedoms ‘won’ even by market forces. She’s feisty as she says and when Theresa’s defeated and allowed to leave Rand rounds on Gideon who attempts to become George again. The mock-tragic ending is a delight and Mitchell steals this show. It’s as if a single surreal strand of Churchill – an outtake of Top Girls – worked its way into Hare: the results show him at his best. Incidentally, Rand ended on state benefits.

Stella Feehily How to Get Ahead in Politics

Having excoriated the right of the left, now the right of the right is amusingly basted in Feehily’s anatomy of a ruthless Chief Whip, Alexander urbanity itself in his Machiavel mode, a more assured one – as Whip – than his Jim incarnation. Feehily writes adroitly about realpolitik. You don’t realize Giles – Joseph Prowen – is merely there for a masterclass in demolition till Steve John Shepherd’s MP arrives.

It’s not this MP but a friend who’s groped an Asian PA who complains this MP, like the heroic type who did the groping – is chummy ex-army and never intervenes. But the groper’s high-profile; this MP isn’t. Tiny signals, drinking, slackening ability, suddenly turn this affable meeting about a friend into something inquisitorial. It’s for Giles to take a revealing dictation. A perfectly cast play.

The Hare’s the unequivocal masterpiece here, and the brief Churchill a superb sliver. Ravenhill’s play packs the same punch it did before. Its power hasn’t dimmed. The Feehily’s a refreshing vignette, perfectly formed, not profound but underscoring what we suspect of MPs and how the Tory party machine works – we’ve had darker revelations since and perhaps Feehily might return to this idiom.

O’Reilly proves outstandingly versatile, and if the Churchill and Beaton don’t stretch the actors there’s richness indeed in the Hare where Mitchell triumphs and pitch-perfect playing in the Feehily.

But its not over, the Company sing a new song by Billy Bragg ‘No Buddy, No’ to round off the ensemble-led quiddity of this uneven, memorable traversal of plays working together: the selection was excellent, and Stafford-Clark’s vision is undimmed.