A Modest Little Man

Francis Beckett
Labour England
The Bread and Roses Theatre

Nye Bevan (Clive Greenwood) Herbert Morrison (Steven Maddocks) and Clement Attlee, (Roger Rose) Credit: Mark Thomas
Violet Attlee (Lynne O’Sullivan) and Clement Attlee, (Roger Rose) Credit: Mark Thomas
Clement Attlee, (Roger Rose) and a Labour activist Rose (Charlotte Cambell) Credit: Mark Thomas

The possibility of a radical reforming Jeremy Corbyn government gives a particular edge to any show dealing with the post-war Clement Attlee government which ushered in the Welfare State.

A Modest Little Man is an affectionate picture of a politician who spoke little but achieved a great deal.

It centres on Attlee’s time as Prime Minister but includes a brief glance at his public school days, his love of cricket (the one subject that could get him talking), his appointment as a Major in the First World War and his visits to the poverty of Limehouse.

Most scenes involve him passively sitting or standing, always avoiding eye contact, as famous people from the King to the left wing firebrand Nye Bevan (Clive Greenwood) try to persuade him of something.

Apart from the addition of an occasional word from Attlee (Roger Rose), the encounters could be simply monologues.

His wife Violet (Lynne O’Sullivan), who at times acts as a linking narrator between scenes speaking directly to the audience, says that sometimes he grunts and that, “I like to hear him grunt. It shows he’s there.”

Not saying much is an unusual characteristic of a politician but very much the comic engine of the play that rolls through the policies of nationalisation and the creation of the NHS.

It's a lively, good-natured performance with a cast of six engagingly playing a total of twelve parts.

Clive Greenwood in particular very effectively morphs into characters as varied as the King and union leader become government minister Ernest Bevin.

But the play is a narrow, uncritical view of Attlee which misses the dramatic opportunities of the conflict taking place over policies.

Even at that time, there were those who argued the government were less than wonderful and I don’t mean the crudity of Winston Churchill (Silas Hawkins) who opens the play with his claim that the Labour Government would introduce some sort of Gestapo.

They didn’t, but everywhere they kept the old hierarchies in place, abandoned the party policy of equal pay for women and on eighteen occasions sent troops in to replace striking workers.

Troops were sent to join the Americans in the Korean War, scarce resources were spent on developing nuclear weapons, a hash was made of Palestine and there was continued occupation of numerous countries.

Unfortunately, the play always heads for the light, the cosy, the comic.

Even in the scene where an exasperated Herbert Morrison (Steven Maddocks) demands Attlee give a militant speech in response to Churchill’s Gestapo slur, the writer goes for the audience laugh by implying Attlee said barely anything when Attlee actually gave a stunning radical statement that could have matched even the most extreme things said by Jeremy Corbyn or Dennis Skinner.

I enjoyed the play, which playfully celebrates an important historical figure, but I also wished it had taken the opportunity to give us something more shaded, more real.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna