Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky
The Spontaneity Shop in association with the King's Head Theatre
King's Head Theatre

Jessica Fostekew (Diana Purdy), David Benson (Adam Masters), Simon Cavendish (Thom Tuck) Credit: Steve Ullathorne
David Benson (Adam Masters) Credit: Steve Ullathorne
Jessica Fostekew (Diana Purdy), David Benson (Adam Masters), Simon Cavendish (Thom Tuck) Credit: Steve Ullathorne

Zugzwang (Ger.): a chess term meaning to wait so long when it’s your turn to move that the other party gets bored and just moves themselves.

In the context of Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky’s 2018 play, Brexit (first seen in Edinburgh last summer before transferring to the King’s Head, where it’s now being reprised), zugzwang is the policy adopted by new Tory PM Adam Masters to stall decision-making and action, as he attempts to keep the warring factions of his party in check and keep Britain in the ‘transition period’ of Brexit indefinitely.

He’s manoeuvred his way to the top of the slippery pole by offering everything to everyone… later. But, limbo isn’t a feasible political strategy: Masters will find that his prevarications won’t save him from the fact that it’s his turn to make a move, and all of his possible moves are bad. Anything he does will make things worse. Masters’s wide necktie is an ominous blood-red: will he be ‘hung’ on the politics of indecision?

One wonders if Khan and Salinsky consulted a clairvoyant when they wrote their script. Or, was it simply gob-smackingly obvious to satirists and laymen alike—in 2016, when Brexit referendum results came in, and in 2017, when Theresa May confirmed her lack of political insight by calling a general election—that it would be nigh on impossible to deliver ‘the will of the people’; and that dithering, dissembling and national disgrace lay ahead.

Interestingly, one broadsheet critic denigrated Brexit as the dud of the 2018 Fringe: "they’ve fixed their sights on what comes after the 'cliff-edge' of March 29, 2019. Not very much, in their crystal-ball gazing opinion. The joke, such as it is, is that come 2020, the country will remain in limbo, neither fully in nor out of the EU and with a hapless Tory PM, dropped into the job as a 'unity' candidate, whose plan is to keep it that way."

Well, we’re a year ahead of ‘schedule’ and, for all his ‘One Nation’ posturing, the front-runner in the current Tory leadership race doesn’t seem likely to offer much unity, to party or country. But, while Khan and Salinksy may not be furnished with the linguistic virtuosity of Swift, Orwell and Iannucci, Brexit is excruciatingly pertinent as we watch our past, present and future coalesce in a comic tragedy in which ‘where we might find ourselves’ and ‘where we are now’ become painfully aligned.

The play opens with Adam Masters (David Benson) relishing the riotousness of PMQs, brazenly dismissive of the Opposition’s calls for a general election as the “Tory government has no majority, is divided between its right wing, its left wing and all the other wings in between”. One might be forgiven for asking what’s fiction and what’s reality. And, Salinsky, who also directs, uses simple means—a couple of green leather chairs, an imposing desk, sombre lighting—to conjure that bickering, baiting and back-biting fractiousness that we associate with Westminster ‘power play’.

Masters is dull-headed and quick-witted by turn—“I have my moments”. Benson’s eyes twinkle with the excitement of a six-year-old in a sweet-shop when he boasts to his unimpressed, prickly and pragmatic special advisor, Paul Connell (Adam Astill), that his ratings are “higher than those reserved for third world dictators”, or tries to entice Paul to stay on board with the promise that “we can get pissed together and trash Chequers. You can take HMS Ark Royal for a spin around Southampton harbour.”

But, panic sets in when he realises that he can’t keep all the balls in the air forever. He’s deflated by the put-downs of the Chief European Negotiator, Helena Brandt (Margaret Cabourn-Smith), who quips that it’s of no consequence if Masters’s failure to find a way forward sinks his leadership: “we’re somewhat used to dealing with a regular conveyor belt of UK prime ministers these days. British manufacturing at its clockwork finest.”

Towering in Louboutin heels, Cabourn-Smith bluntly exposes the Tories’ self-serving stupidity when they triggered withdrawal with a “quick announcement that got you through one tricky day at as seaside conference”. And, she peers quizzically at Masters through her Gucci specs, suavely dismissing his plan to break the deadlock by having “no Brexit at all”, ridiculing the Brexiteers’ former promises: “making Britain great again as some sort of gigantic version of Guernsey?” One can’t help thinking that if Masters fancies himself as a half-decent chess-player, then Brandt is a Grand Master.

Masters invites into his Cabinet politicians with diametrically opposed views, hoping for stalemate rather than checkmate. On the metaphorical right is his Trade Secretary, arch-Brexiteer Simon Cavendish (Thom Tuck), oozing unctuousness and an arrogance tempered by a childish lack of self-awareness. He’s crestfallen when Paul punctures his self-belief by exposing the delusion that his Machiavellian manoeuvring will ensure his colleagues’ loyalty: “everyone you have a private tête-à-tête with, subsequently, decides that they want to see your tête on a spike… For some reason, your brand of smug, supercilious condescension just isn’t landing with your fellow MPs.” Tuck must have studied the manners and mannerisms of various current Tory MPs, and he reproduces them with wonderfully slick insouciance.

On the left of Masters’s Cabinet is Brexit Secretary Diana Purdy (Jessica Fostekew), stalwart of the Remainers and garrulous, unguarded supplier of a stream of ill-judged, potentially slanderous tabloid headlines. Fostekew, likewise, seems a composite of those ‘purposeful’ MPs that we know all too well: dressed in an ill-fitting trouser-suit, desperate to seem businesslike and professional, she barges about, screaming into her smartphone. “Full steam ahead!” Masters reassures Cavendish. “Full steam reverse!” he pledges to Purdy. It’s political purgatory.

Salinsky generates a lively pace, the short scenes segueing convincingly. The endgame is not what one expects. Brexit isn’t sophisticated but it is sharp. It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so tragic. Connell reminds Masters that he has to survive another 205 more days in office to avoid depriving Andrew Bonar Law of the accolade of being the shortest serving PM in British History, and quits his role as “I’m not playing Brexit Through the Looking Glass with you”. Current Tory leadership hopefuls might take note.

After the zugzwang comes schadenfreude.

Reviewer: Claire Seymour

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