Coalition (Blue Group)
With consummate timing, Theatre503 present a series of short plays which riff on the theme of "Coalition" - both in that they are all products of collaborations between playwrights and artists of other disciplines, and in that they all address in one way or another the new age of coalition government in which we find ourselves. You might say that a theatrical exploration of the current political situation could have come a little sooner; but coinciding as it does with the student riots and the general reaction to the October cuts, this project feels incredibly vital. There are ten pieces of work, split into a Blue Group and a Yellow Group (for Tories and Lib Dems, of course), which perform on alternate nights. The Yellow Group includes new work by Dominic Cavendish, Rex Obano, Lola Stephenson, Ella Hickson and Ben Ockrent; if they come close to the quality of the Blue Group pieces, which I saw, then by heavens Theatre503 has my vote.
Westminster Side Story
By Richard Marsh and Rogue Nouveau, directed by Pia Furtado
Richard Marsh is the playwright (one of the current 503 Five) and slam poet; Rogue Nouveau is the hip hop and jazz-influenced musician. Together they've created an outrageously good satirical mini-musical, replaying the events of the crucial weekend after the election, in which the pivotal deals were made. The musical format enables them to marry form and content superbly, and Pia Furtado's direction underlines this.
The Lib Dem posse become a crooning vocal group, who perform boyband-style synchronised arm gestures to aid their argument when trying to persuade Clegg (Richard Atwill) to stay true to his left-wing ideals. Cameron is a slinky, silky-voiced, soft-shoe dancer backed up by elegant masked cronies; and a morose Gordon Brown rebuts Clegg's serenade pleading for a glorious socialist partnership, because "I'm a steeple person not a people person", and "I can't sing like David can".
There are some fantastic lines, as Clegg gets increasingly seduced by Cameron's smooth showbiz panache ("I never press snooze, I can't even spell lose," David smirks) and as much of the Lib Dem core turns against him for it - "you'll be the Tories' fuckbuddy".
And once the deal is done, the play nicely suggests how both sides of the coalition will point out the influence of the other as an excuse to cling to the centre ground. Best of all, the play ends with a furious spoken-word diatribe from Atwill, pointing out the voting public's complicity in how things turned out - "where were we in May? Snoozing, boozing" - and digging at the arts world for only caring about losing its own funding, and even at the audience in front of him for being sat in a theatre instead of out on the streets protesting ("It takes the NUS to riot"). Brave stuff.
By Sarah Grochala and Heydon Prowse, Joseph Wade & William Pine, directed by Jack McNamara
Prowse, Wade and Pine are campaigning film-makers, who have teamed up with writer Grochala to make what they are calling a sort of propaganda play in support of the principles of the Big Society. It's the story of how a community might pull together to reclaim for themselves what the government cuts have taken away.
Alex (Chris Robson), a recently-discharged soldier, returns from Helmand Province to his home in Newcastle to find his town decimated by the cuts, and a jobless future awaiting him. His wife Sonia has in his absence taken in a drippy Southern lodger called David; it's he who persuades Alex to step up and achieve something, rather than letting himself be walked all over by society.
So Alex gets together a rag-tag band of friends and neighbours (handily representing a neat cross-section of the local community) to break into the recently-shut-down library and take it back. At this point director McNamara veers the play into Mission Impossible-style action-thriller mode, complete with urgent pounding music, synchronised watches and criminal stunts. The music's quite manipulative, and the ending very upbeat and winning, so much so that we can't help but be a little bit moved even while we're aware that the whole thing is a bit of a pastiche.
"The state's not a fairy godmother" says David sanctimoniously, as he persuades Alex not to wait for the government to help his town out; but this is undermined by the ending, in which David provides exactly the sort of magical intervention that he has told the group they can't depend on getting. The play has some sharp satirical spikes: the job centre is now part of a Starbucks branch; Alex is refused a job as a "hygiene maintenance officer" because he can't speak Polish. Overall I would have rather the tone had been more certain, rather than landing somewhere between sincere and mocking. But the framing device is neat: the actor playing David (Ross Armstrong) introduces, with nervous, right-on attitude, the Never So Good Players who are going to present this fable, to show that it's not so bad as all that, chaps.
Whatever feelgood sentiment the play elicits from us is then swiftly dispatched by a short film from Prowse, Wade and Pine. Big Society is a mock-documentary following a fictionalised David and Nick as they doorstep unsuspecting members of the public and try to persuade them to sign up to the values of the "BS": to take their own rubbish to the tip, to do some volunteering after they've worked a 10-hour day and put their 3 children to bed etc. It's bitter and hilarious; especially watching the look of glorious bafflement and outrage on the face of none other than Jonathan Miller, one of their apparently random interviewees. Surely he was in on the joke.
Miriam. Gonzalez. Durantez.
By Sarah Solemani and Rebecca Greig, directed by Kate Budgen
Playwright Solemani forms a nice partnership with campaigning journalist Greig to produce this interesting straight play telling things from the perspective of Miriam, Clegg's wife.
The main focus is on their life together pre-election: we see Miriam back in Spain persuading her family priest to marry her and Nick although he isn't a Catholic. Several years into their married life, the couple fight over their respective workloads and question whose work must take priority and whose must be put back. Later still, Miriam mourns the death of her formidable mother.
It raises some intriguing questions about Nick's private life, but not out of prurient, gossipy interest: rather for the sake of exploring how private life and public principles may interact. There are questions of faith, sexual politics and womens' responsibilities, and what being a Europhile might really mean.
At the same time though, the play warns against the danger of assuming you have got the measure of someone from what you've read about them. A brilliant scene, the real meat of the play, has Miriam confronted by an innocent-seeming student newspaper writer who suddenly turns what was meant to be a fluff piece into an aggressive interrogation of Clegg's complicity in new policies that have drastically set back the cause of women's rights.
This sounds pretty easy to get behind, but Miriam's reply is persuasive too: what she can't tolerate, with a full-time job, three children to care for and a politician husband to constantly back up, is self-servingly ambitious journalists who "squat on my time" and who try to trap her to push their own agenda. The structure of the play is a little bitty, with this great set-to followed by a couple of lesser scenes. But it's a nicely subtle piece, with good performances all round, particularly from Leila Farzad as the woman herself.
By Daniel Kanaber and Kirsty McNeill, directed by Gbolahan Obisesan
Kirsty McNeill is a local councillor, political advisor, speechwriter and charity campaigner; her wide experience, though, is not particularly apparent in this rather slight play written with playwright Kanaber.
Charlotte breaks into Dan's flat late at night and waits for him to come home from a night out. They're both graduates from one of the posh universities, who never knew or liked each other much at uni, and as far as Dan's concerned, except for the fact that they had a one-night stand a while ago, nothing has changed. Charlotte thinks differently of course. Dan's understandably outraged that she is in his flat uninvited; but she has some news she's holding to her chest, which she thinks entitles her to take some liberties.
The play is an extended metaphor for how people might be manipulated and trapped into a situation which allows them only one moral possibility. There are some nice if unsubtle illustrations of this idea; Charlotte, on her way into the flat, struck up conversation with Dan's neighbours and has ingratiated herself thoroughly with them, leaving him yet more pressured to accept her terms or face massive social embarrassment. But this is then a bit overplayed, as the neighbours improbably bang on Dan's door in the middle of the night - at a crucial moment in Dan and Charlotte's confrontation - to congratulate him and wish him well for his future with her.
Kanaber deftly captures Dan's casual Sloane Ranger language ("look, fuck off, you know?") and hints at some of the frustrations and jealousies of the upper classes; at university Charlotte grew sick of the sight of Dan rowing on the river, "drifting up and down collecting compliments". But this doesn't adequately explain why she has backed him into this corner. The power dynamic in the conversation shifts so constantly that it feels almost parodic of the sort of knotty sexual power play scenes that theatre can do so well; and the end has Dan wrapped rather too neatly and suddenly around Charlotte's little finger.
The Prophets and the Puppets
by Nimer Rashed and Ronnie Le Drew, directed by Poppy Burton-Morgan
The pairing of writer Rashed and puppeteer Le Drew produces this batty and sporadically brilliant fantasy about war, tribalism, prejudice, propaganda and the self-perpetuating hatred of one side for the other.
An announcement in the style of an old war film reel kicks us off: we're in the 15th year, apparently, of the conflict between the Puppets ("demonic in their ferocity") and the Prophets who stand for "logic and truth". When we meet said Prophets though, they're archetypes of pompous British pre-war self-conviction.
Eager young soldier Nick proposes to sweet, airheaded Cordelia, who is happy to accept if her dear Daddy approves. Daddy is a bullish General, and his approval of the match depends largely on his assessment of Nick's macho prowess and dedication as a soldier to the ongoing conflict. But an injured, wordless Puppet (operated by Le Drew) has invaded the couple's home and been hidden upstairs by Nick. Will he offer refuge to the enemy, or will he prove his worth, in the General's eyes, by executing it with dry eyes and steady hand?
The play has a nice similarity with War Horse in playing on the idea that death is the severing of a puppet from its puppeteer. And there's a degree of brilliance in the small specific touches Rashed adds to build this world: the military training academy the young couple attended sounds more like a mid-century boarding school, "all A-major scales and muddy fields"; the Prophets' language is sprinkled with casual Puppet-hating turns of phrase ("string" is a swear word, "twine lover" the ultimate insult); when the Puppet invades their home they sing a sort of talismanic nursery rhyme at it, intended I suppose to defend themselves from it.
They seem almost like the characters in Brave New World hypnotised by a lifetime of absorbing received wisdom and now caught in a cycle of childish, irrational behaviour. Emily Dobbs is particularly good as Cordelia: a fine, feathery performance, highly caricatured. The Prophets' viewpoint is all we see though, so it's hard to analyse the truth behind the anti-Puppet propaganda, without knowing anything of the history of the conflict or the other side's point of view (the Puppet in the play is no more than a plot device to bring about Nick's moment of truth).
Overall the play is a weird mix of absurdist fantasy and serious political allegory; I'd rather like to see it developed further, but if it was I feel it would have to choose a side.
Reviewer: Corinne Salisbury