Magnificence

Howard Brenton
Finborough Theatre

Joel Gilllman as Jed, Tyson Douglas as Cliff, Daisy Hughes as Mary, Will Bliss as Will and Eva-Jane Willis as Veronica Credit: Tegid Cartwright
Joel Gilman as Jed Credit: Tegid Cartwright
Hayward B Morse as Babs and Tim Faulkner as Alice Credit: Tegid Cartwright
Will Bliss as Will and Chris Porter as Slaughter Credit: Tegid Cartwright

Commissioned by the Royal Court and staged there in 1973, the year after the trial of the Angry Brigade for launching a series of bomb attacks (on property not people), Magnificence presents a rather less organised protest group of radical young left-wingers who squat an empty property as a political gesture.

They seem more middle-class drop-outs than worker activists. Their newest member, RP accented Veronica (Eva-Jane Willis) taking leave from her job with the BBC to join them, criticises their inefficiency and lack of focused purpose. After they have been thrown out by brutal bailiffs, one of them gets sent to prison where he gets hooked on speed. When he comes out, he’s fired up to take direct action, targeting a cabinet minister.

Is Jed (Joel Gillman) with his sticks of gelignite a more effective protester than Veronica shouting phrases from Mao’s Little Red Book at the bailiffs? Breton doesn’t investigate the reasons for his action: speed and a fantasy encounter with Vladimir Ilyich Lenin hardly explain it but in its context perhaps just exasperation.

Political argument here is minimal. Perhaps in 1973 there was no need to spell out reasons for radical left-wing feeling. Rather one could see this as comment on the ineffectiveness of such left-wing protest. We are never told on what charge Jed is convicted—especially when it is the bailiff’s violence that has cause his girlfriend to miscarry, though the implication is that the establishment can protect its own and suppress opposition.

Set against the main plot-line are two sharp satirical sketches that are caustically comic about establishment figures, even more pointed by being played inside Phil Lindley’s squalid, squat set. First is the conversation between the bailiff Slaughter, haunted by an accusation about a previous repossession, and a brainwashed policeman. The second is a Cambridge tryst between two high Tories.

Chris Porter produces exactly the right mixture of self-importance and neurosis as the bailiff and Tim Faulkner makes a perfect double act as the copper who believes we are all part of a Martian experiment.

Faulkner also doubles as a cabinet minister called to Cambridge where a former lover (who calls him Alice) stages a final parting. Babs, the older man, now near death, is an Elder Statesman first pushed up into the Lords then into Academia. Hayward B Morse makes him a delicious old queen, absolutely outrageous, instantly recognisable and very funny, especially when inventing his own scabrous obituary. (Morse does a striking double as a filthy old tramp: quite a difference!)

Alice is caught up in the rest of the play, one of those patrician right-wing figures you expect to be awful who in private life seem so considerate. You already seem to know more about Babs and him than the young revolutionaries but they whet they appetite for much more!

Perhaps in 1973 it was easier to identify with Jed and pregnant girlfriend Mary (Daisy Hughes being charmingly innocent), Veronica and their colleagues Cliff (Tyson Douglas), a bit more down to earth than the others and Will (Will Bliss) who is perhaps more attached to belonging than political action. They do seem incompetent.

Today dissent is perhaps more organised but whose hands control it. Do Internet petitions and social media messages really have the effect that is claimed for them? How do you bring change and justice? The questions that Brenton implicitly raises are still with us.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton