Review: Brexit at the King’s Head Theatre

Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky could have come up with a more creative title for their acclaimed political comedy Brexit – but they didn’t really need to, given that actual Brexit has been a massive satire in and of itself for some time now. Nor did the writers have to stray very far from the facts; the play that was topical during its previous run at the King’s Head a few months ago is now, in the week that the horror show known as the Tory leadership contest officially gets underway, basically just mirroring reality.

Photo credit: Steve Ullathorne

It’s 2020, and Britain has a new prime minister – who’s somehow managed to get elected by Conservative party members despite having no policies, no backbone and, naturally, no clue how he’s supposed to deliver the impossible dream that is Brexit. Fully aware that whatever he does he’ll be crucified by one side or the other, Adam Masters (David Benson) opts for what he deems a foolproof strategy: do nothing, and hope it all goes away – much to the dismay of his campaign manager turned unofficial policy advisor Paul Connell (Adam Astill). It never occurs to the new PM, as he plays rival ministers Diana Purdy (Jessica Fostekew) and Simon Cavendish (Thom Tuck) off against each other, that they might just have plans of their own…

Much like its central character, the play doesn’t attempt to rehash the referendum, focusing instead on the thing we can all agree on: that British attempts to implement the Will of the People have, so far, been less than successful. Khan and Salinsky – who also directs – expose Leavers and Remainers alike as power-hungry and manipulative, and more than willing to cheerfully prioritise their own ambitions above the needs of the country they claim to serve. Meanwhile the EU’s Chief Negotiator Helena Brandt (Margaret Cabourn-Smith) is sitting back with a glass of wine and a (metaphorical) bucket of popcorn, waiting for the Brits to stop in-fighting and realise it’s all been a terrible mistake. It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so depressingly on the money.

And this is where Brexit hits a bit of a snag; when truth is even more ridiculous than fiction, it takes a bit of the joy out of laughing at it. The priggish new Trade Secretary Simon Cavendish is a brilliant piece of comedy acting from Thom Tuck – but somehow, stunningly, this character still ends up feeling like a watered down version of real-life caricature Jacob Rees Mogg. And while it’s fun to watch David Benson’s Adam scurry back and forth trying to keep all his plates spinning, we’ve been watching Theresa May do the same with increasing desperation for two years now, so it’s no particular surprise when it doesn’t end well.

Photo credit: Steve Ullathorne

But maybe I’m being a misery (thinking about Brexit does tend to have that effect, after all). For all that it can’t live up to the absurdity of real life, the play is very funny, with a polished cast expertly delivering such zingers as “You can’t continue to govern over Schrodinger’s Britain”, and the particularly well received “that bearded Labour Gandalf driving his motor-home up Downing Street”. For fans of political satire, Brexit (the event – if you can call something that never actually happens an event) has already provided countless hours of entertainment, and Brexit (the play) continues to prove that sometimes, there really is nothing left to do but laugh.

Review: People Like Us at the Union Theatre

When it comes to Brexit, the one thing we can all agree on is that we don’t agree. The vote to leave the EU in June 2016 has been more divisive than any other political issue that I can recall in my lifetime, and while I personally voted Remain, I’m open-minded enough to acknowledge that Brexit could turn out to be not quite the disaster it appears to be, and to want to understand the other side of the debate.

Apparently, this makes me worthy of ridicule – at least according to Julie Burchill and Jane Robins, whose play People Like Us promises to “uniquely provide an argument for both sides of the debate”, and in doing so address the tendency within the arts to focus on the Remainer viewpoint. This is not a bad thing; we live in a culture of free speech, after all, and there’s certainly a need for theatre that makes us think outside our usual mindset.

Photo credit: Paul Nicholas Dyke

Unfortunately, People Like Us is not the play to do it. The cast of five do a decent enough job with the material, but there’s no hiding the fact that this is essentially one big, self-congratulatory dig at the Remain camp and everyone in it. Focusing on the members of a north London book club just before and after the vote, there’s absolutely no attempt at reasoned political debate, and any suggestion that the play presents a balanced view is, frankly, laughable. Remainer Ralph (Kamaal Hussain) is presented as a cartoonishly privileged cry-baby, a cad who abandoned his wife and daughters for sexy French environmentalist Clémence (Marine Andre). Worse, he then allows her to manipulate him into labelling Frances (Sarah Toogood) and Stacey (Gemma-Germaine) – the decent, hard-working patriots who voted for Brexit – as ignorant racists, and kicking them out of the book club.

Now, I’m more than aware there are Remainers who think that way, and it’s certainly reasonable – necessary, even – to point it out. Similarly, I understand there are many, many people who voted for Brexit who had good reasons for doing so, and who are not, in fact, ignorant racists. It does, however, seem a rather counterproductive approach to make the case against stereotyping people by, er, massively stereotyping people. (This stereotyping, incidentally, includes the portrayal of the Brexiters, who can offer no particular reason for their decision other than “democracy” – rather playing into the hands of those inclined to question their understanding of the situation.)

And just in case we need convincing that the writers have little interest in reasoned political debate, the book club’s fifth member Will (Paul Giddings) – the one character who’s willing to be a grown-up, accept the result of the vote and attempt to look for some common ground – is bullied mercilessly by both sides, because he’s not kicking and screaming in either victory or defeat.

Photo credit: Paul Nicholas Dyke

In fact, it’s a wonder the book club lasted until the Brexit vote, since none of the characters seem to like each other very much even before politics gets involved. Frances and Stacey make fun of Clémence for being a do-gooder; she in turn judges them for drinking too much. Ralph is tiring of his new young wife, and clearly has some unfinished business with Stacey, who’s all too aware of the fact. And of course, everyone looks down on Will, because – well, he’s an easy target. Consequently, the play isn’t even particularly fun to watch, since almost all the characters are such horrible people and it’s impossible to empathise with them, regardless of our own political stance. A few of the one-liners – mostly those from Will, the one likeable character – raise a chuckle, but everything else about the play feels so needlessly unpleasant that the humour often falls flat.

With the Brexit vote now two years behind us, and an uncertain future ahead, it’s sad to see so much bitterness lingering on between the two sides of the debate – and a play that seems to deliberately set out to perpetuate that bad feeling is at best unhelpful, at worst dangerous. The idea to examine how Brexit has come between friends, lovers and family members is certainly an interesting one, and it’s a topic worthy of further debate. But for me, People Like Us takes too much delight in the division to make any meaningful contribution to that discussion.


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Review: Beautiful Little Fools at the Cockpit Theatre

Beautiful Little Fools is the debut production from all-female company Optic Theatre – and it’s clear they mean business. Intense, brutal and with a conclusion that’s genuinely quite traumatic, the show takes an everyday situation to the ultimate horrifying extreme, showing what human beings are capable of when exposed to a relentless stream of hatred and lies.

Three young women wake up in a room, with no idea of how they got there or even who they are. There’s no way of leaving, and each of them is wearing an electric ankle bracelet that delivers a painful shock every time they step out of line. Every day they’re forced to listen to disembodied voices – which we recognise as those of public figures including Margaret Thatcher and Donald Trump – discussing the danger posed by immigrants. And then a new girl arrives…

I’d love to say this story is far-fetched – and of course it is, in the sense that the British government doesn’t really have bunkers full of terrified prisoners who are being slowly radicalised (or at least let’s hope not). But the way in which the girls are manipulated in their torture chamber/Big Brother house is unnervingly familiar, and with people like Katie Hopkins advocating “final solutions” in the mainstream media, the play’s shocking climax doesn’t seem like such a wild stretch of the imagination.

Anna Marshall’s production successfully depicts the passing of time (though exactly how much is hard to tell), with movement sequences between scenes that demonstrate the captives’ mind-numbing routine. Each time we come back to them, they’ve lost a little more of their humanity, as they play mind games, form alliances and turn on each other in their desperation to survive the ordeal. In 60 gripping minutes, Jemma Burgess (who also wrote the play), Sophia Hannides, Isabel Goldby-Briggs and Jessica Collins take us on a rollercoaster ride through shock, fear, anger, hysteria and hatred – but also some deeply moving moments of vulnerability that remind us these young women are human beings just like us, whatever they may find themselves driven to do.

The play unflinchingly exposes its audience to the same treatment as its characters. We listen to the same abhorrent recordings at least three or four times, and endure flashing lights, high-pitched tones and crackling electricity (courtesy of sound designers Dan Bottomley and Davide Vox). It’s deeply unsettling, even for just an hour, and makes it easy to believe that after days, weeks or even months of this treatment, the girls might be willing to do just about anything to gain their freedom.

Beautiful Little Fools is an exciting debut from Optic Theatre, a thrilling and disquieting reminder of the power of words to change hearts and minds, for better and for worse. It would perhaps have been easy to dismiss as impossible a couple of years ago – but with hate crimes on the rise, Brexit going ahead and Trump in the White House, the play is not only timely; it’s terrifying.


Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉