The Austerity Playbook

Mark O'Thomas

Dende Collective

Northern Stage

On 01 November 2017

Review by Peter Mortimer

This is a splendid idea with its heart in the right place. If it doesn’t quite work, there are still things to admire. And it is billed as a work-in-progress.

The research for the show stretched over five years, though the 70-minute production itself was put together, rehearsed and performed within eight days—a remarkable achievement, especially considering the amount of text and that it has a specifically-written live jazz accompaniment almost throughout.

Basically, this is a jazz musical about austerity and its effect on a North East city. It’s the brainchild of three North East academics, Laurence Ferry of Durham Universty,  Ileana Steccolini from Newcastle University (who together did most of the research) and Mark O’Thomas formerly of Newcastle University (who wrote the script).

The four specific characters—case studies almost—are the librarian (Rebecca Mann), her beloved library facing the threat of closure, the leader of the council (Donna Combe), battling against the inevitable cuts, Killian MacCardle (the refugee) facing increasing hostility from an angry populace and Rebekah Harvey as the police community services officer, also on the receiving end of the cutbacks. The only real interaction between the characters is love blossoming between the last two. Otherwise, as I say, they are case studies and viewed mainly separately.

We begin in 2012, when chancellor Osborne first introduced the austerity measures whose negative effects are as strong today as they were then. Partly naturalistic, partly stylised, the piece (without a set) uses masks, wigs, cardboard puppets, scribbled messages on paper, all fairly economical devices as if to emphasise what this is really about. At the start, audience members are invited to write their own protest slogans on blank sheets, though strangely nothing more is made of this.

The audience are also asked to clap hands and chant the kind of slogans used in protest marches. Done from cold, this is performed rather self-consciously.

Live music is composed by Andrea Vicari, keyboard player in the accompanying jazz trio. At times, it has echoes of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weil but some of the songs are fairly anodyne in the Lloyd Webber style.

Political musical theatre has a strong tradition of course—Brecht/Weil as mentioned but also the likes of Joan Littlewood. It needs a fierce energy, a sense of agit-prop and a merciless ability to lampoon its subject matter.

One problem here is that all the characters are victims and the piece never gets in its sight the austerity benefactors, that inevitable sector of society that always gains from such measures. Not a single mention of the bankers for a start (isn’t that where it all began?), nor indeed, though the effects of privatisation are touched on, is much made of the commonly held belief that austerity was a clinically executed tactic to help reduce the power of the state.

Although one character wears a ‘toon’ football shirt and the publicity clearly includes Newcastle landmarks—and indeed the show forms part of the 50th anniversary celebrations of Martin Luther King’s visit to Newcastle (where he was given freedom of city)—Newcastle for some reason is given the fictitious name Burnside. Hard to think of a name less suited to this rough-edged and vibrant regional metropolis. And why change it anyway?

It would be a good piece to take forward, more time and more funding to shape a promising production into something tighter and with a slightly sharper edge. Possibly also more humour. All the actors by the way pull out the stops.