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.

Brexit is at the King’s Head Theatre until 6th July.

Review: Tony’s Last Tape at Omnibus Theatre

Tony Benn is well known for being one of Britain’s most divisive politicians – and yet when he died in 2014, tributes poured in from colleagues across the political spectrum, who spoke of their great respect for his enduring commitment to the values and causes in which he believed. In his tribute, then Labour leader Ed Miliband said, “He believed in movements and mobilised people behind him for the causes he cared about, often unfashionable ones. In a world of politics that is often too small, he thought big about our country and our world.”

Photo credit: Robert Day

That commitment comes across powerfully in Andy Barrett’s play Tony’s Last Tape, in which a frail 87-year-old Benn (or rather “a character called Tony Benn, based on the real life Tony Benn”) decides it’s time to finally quit politics… well, maybe. For 50 years he’s recorded the events of his life in his diaries, and on this rainy morning he’s recording his final tape. What emerges from the meandering monologue that follows is a picture of a principled and still fiercely dedicated politician, but also a devoted family man with a mischievous sense of humour… and an enduring love of bananas.

Most importantly – and refreshingly, particularly at the moment – Tony Benn comes across as a human being fighting for other human beings. And whether we agree with or even understand everything he says (I suspect you’d need to know quite a bit about British political history to pick up every reference and name-drop in the play), it’s impossible not to like and respect him for his passion and determination. It’s also very obvious that a man like that, despite his best intentions, won’t be able to stop; he can’t even resist risking life and limb to change a lightbulb, even though common sense dictates he should definitely not be climbing on the desk in his condition.

Photo credit: Robert Day

Philip Bretherton gives a strong solo performance, recognisably portraying the real Tony Benn in voice, appearance and mannerisms. He’s equally convincing, however, in his depiction of an elderly man looking back over an eventful life and reflecting thoughtfully on the decisions – both right and wrong – that he’s taken, and emotionally on the loved ones he’s lost along the way. Director Giles Croft manages the pace and energy of the production well; rather than just sit at his desk and talk, Benn potters around his cluttered study and rummages in desk drawers and bookcases, frequently stumbling on long-forgotten objects that spark new memories and anecdotes. As a result, there’s little in the way of linear narrative – instead the play is a 75-minute stream of consciousness that hops from one topic to another.

In light of this, Tony’s Last Tape shouldn’t be seen as anything approaching a Tony Benn biopic (with over 50 years of material to work from, Barrett could hardly be expected to cover everything anyway), and it’s probably a good idea to read at least a brief summary of Benn’s career before going in to give the play some context. What the play is, however, is a sympathetic and respectful portrayal of a man who went into politics for the right reasons, and who never wavered from his convictions. Particularly in the current political climate, that feels like something which deserves to be celebrated.

Tony’s Last Tape is at Omnibus Theatre until 20th April.

Review: The Fire Raisers at the Hen and Chickens Theatre

The Fire Raisers was written by Swiss playwright Max Frisch in 1948, reportedly as a response to the Communist takeover in Prague – though the play never specifically references that event. Instead, it takes as its setting the home of respected middle-class businessman Gottlieb Biedermann, whose town has recently been targeted by serial arsonists. Biedermann is one of the first to speak out against the attacks – but when two fire raisers talk their way into his home, making absolutely no secret of their intention to burn it down, he flat-out refuses to acknowledge the truth that’s right in front of his eyes.

Described by Frisch as a “lesson without teaching”, the allegorical play can be seen as a comment on any number of 20th or 21st century political events that have seen even the most respectable citizens turn a blind eye to blatant wrongdoing. It’s left to the audience, however, to decide specifically where and how we apply that message. This new production by Theatre of Heaven and Hell is similarly non-specific – although the inclusion of original songs by director Michael Ward does give the play at times an unnecessarily didactic feel, particularly during a rather heavy-handed and superfluous final number.

The cast of actor-musicians generally manage the comedic chaos well, with strong central performances in particular from Darren Ruston as Biedermann, and Marius Clements and Jake W Francis as the two would-be arsonists. Ruston’s Biedermann is very much the everyman, despite his many flaws, and even as we laugh at his stubborn stupidity, we can understand – if not condone – why he behaves as he does. When he turns to the audience and demands to know what we would have done in his shoes, it’s a particularly uncomfortable moment for everyone.

Similarly, we can’t help but be charmed by Clements and Francis, even though we know full well they’re up to no good. Each time they openly admit they’re plotting to burn down Biedermann’s house, we laugh along with both them and their victim because it seems so ludicrous; who would confess such a thing if they really meant to do it? Watching them, we’re reminded of those leaders who use their charisma and the appearance of buffoonery to slip under the radar (in keeping with the spirit of the play, I won’t name names – but I think we can all think of a couple of examples…).

At once an enjoyable absurdist comedy and a cautionary political parable, The Fire Raisers is a fun show with a bit of an edge. There are times when the production feels like it’s trying a bit too hard to get its point across, rather than allowing Frisch’s script to speak for itself – but that grumble aside the play has lots to say and, for the most part, says it well.

The Fire Raisers is at the Hen and Chickens Theatre until 17th November.

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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.

People Like Us is at the Union Theatre until 20th October.


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Review: Citizen at The Space

Just a few days after another British-Iranian citizen – Abbas Edalat, a professor of computer science and mathematics at Imperial College in London – was arrested on spying charges in Tehran, Suitcase Civilians’ show Citizen strikes very close to home. Simultaneously a celebration of the country’s proud culture and a condemnation of its political repression, the show brings together a collection of news and personal stories that explore what citizenship really means, and invites us to ponder why the simple question “Where are you from?” is increasingly fraught with complications and potential dangers.

Alongside well-known news stories like that of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British-Iranian project manager detained in 2016 while on a family visit with her 22-month-old daughter, writer and director Sepy Baghaei also includes deeply personal anecdotes like that of a family forced to flee their country at a moment’s notice, and a young man who avoided death by seconds when his office building was hit by a bomb – but whose friends weren’t so lucky.

Nor is the focus only on Iran’s controversial treatment of its citizens; one of the first stories we hear is that of Behrouz Boochani, an Iranian refugee detained on Manus Island since 2013, because he attempted to reach Australia by sea. And let’s not forget Donald Trump’s travel ban, preventing citizens of seven nations – including Iran – to enter the USA, the byproduct of which has been countless people living in the States who are too afraid to travel home to see their families, in case they can’t get back.

There are lighter moments too, however. In one scene a filmmaker narrates a social interaction between two women, describing in hushed tones the unique customs on display, and in another two of the actors talk us cheerfully through “how to make an Iranian”, before handing out tea and dates to the audience.

Such a varied show – which also features music and poetry – presents a demanding task for its cast, but the actors rise to the occasion admirably, moving seamlessly from one persona and accent to another. David Djemal is particularly moving in an emotional portrayal of Behrouz Boochani as he describes the trauma of his detention on Manus Island, and Nalân Burgess stands out as a young woman who reminisces about growing up in Britain whilst trying to remain connected to her Iranian heritage.

Ending on a quietly reflective note that looks ahead to an uncertain future, Citizen is a thought-provoking piece of theatre that doesn’t hold back with regard to the ongoing political issues in Iran. That said, the picture it paints is far from simplistic; unlike those politicians quoted in the show, Beghaei and Suitcase Civilians recognise that the country you come from – while it may have a profound impact on how you live your life – doesn’t necessarily define who you are. The show focuses on Iran as an example, and is a fascinating insight into a culture that many Londoners will know little about, but its message is far broader, and feels uncomfortably relevant in a society that continues to make sweeping judgments about other human beings based on race and nationality.

Citizen is at The Space until 5th May.


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