The League of Youth

Henrik Ibsen in a new version by Andy Barrett
Nottingham Playhouse
(2011)

Nick Clegg's spin doctors must be making sure the Deputy Prime Minister's diary is full for the next couple of weeks and he won't have time to see the UK premiere of Ibsen's first successful theatre project, The League of Youth. That's because the leader of the Liberal Democrats might find it uncomfortable viewing.

Although the play was written more than 140 years ago, there are parallels with the British political structure today. The leading character, Stensgard, aims to break open the two-party system and force change. But you're never convinced that he knows what he stands for and he changes course faster than a Formula One car on new tyres whenever the prospect of power is dangled before him.

Mr Clegg may deny there's any similarity between himself and Stensgard; others may take a different view.

In the programme Andy Barrett points out that Ibsen's original work is a very long, five-act play and he's had to condense it so that it could be brought to a UK stage for the first time. A couple of characters have been jettisoned, reducing the number to thirteen. Here two actors double up.

Barrett has done a good job to decipher the vagaries of the Norwegian parliamentary and local government elections. The only strange thing is that candidates don't have to get their nomination forms in until very close to election day itself.

The overall impression you get about The League of Youth is that all the cast and crew have pulled together to ensure it comes first past the post.

Barrett's adaptation is authentically perceptive, Giles Croft directs with an assured confidence, Dawn Allsopp's design is impressively grand and the actors - fifteen townspeople and servants as well as eleven with speaking parts - throw themselves wholeheartedly into the production.

The League of Youth takes a while to warm up while the characters are unveiled and their significance in a medium-sized, fictional Norwegian town is explained.

Stansgard, a lawyer who's been in the town for only six months, offers the people something different from the established parties whose representatives have vested interests: hope and opportunity.

Sam Callis's portrayal of Stensgard is outstanding, mainly because of the matter-of-fact way he does a U-turn whenever it suits his purposes.

He demands that the town's newspaper printer Aslaksen changes a leading article in which Stensgard has criticised a pillar of the community, Chamberlain Bratsberg, after Bratsberg offers to work with him for the good of the town. Stensgard bluntly threatens to destroy Aslaksen and set up his own paper in competition if the printer doesn't comply.

Callis looks and sounds like a politician: his character doesn't realise when he's putting his foot in it and you question his sincerity when he says lines such as "whatever I have to do to get into power, believe me when I say that I will do it honourably."

The other major success of The League of Youth is Philip Bretherton. He's aristocratic, authoritative and astute as Bratsberg; he commands the stage with his unrivalled presence.

His anger at the start of the second act, after Stensberg has ridiculed him in front of a house full of guests, is delightfully, ever-so-slightly over the top.

My only reservation with The League of Youth is that one actor doubles up as Erik Bratsberg and Bastian Monson. Chris Nayak is a fine performer, as he proved at Nottingham Playhouse when he played George in Arthur and George. Here there's little differentiation between the characters he plays, with only a slight change of accent; I'm sure I wasn't the only one who occasionally experienced confusion.

On the whole, The League of Youth is a solid production full of biting satire which shows how little politics has changed. Like many elections, turnout wasn't high on the night I saw it - but I should imagine several other theatres will include it in their manifestos in years to come. It puts a cross in most of the right boxes.

"The League of Youth" continues until June 1st

Reviewer: Steve Orme