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Party Trap

Ross Sutherland
Show and Tell
Shoreditch Town Hall

Zara Plessard as Amanda Barkham MP and Simon Hepworth as Sir David Bradley Credit: Alex Brenner
Zara Plessard as Amanda Barkham MP and Simon Hepworth as Sir David Bradley Credit: Alex Brenner
Simon Hepworth as Sir David Bradley Credit: Alex Brenner

“The clocks have struck thirteen.” This Orwellian allusion stands out among the banal lyrics of the song which opens Ross Sutherland’s new play, Party Trap, signalling that there will be more than a sprinkling of dystopian satire in this “palindromic political tragedy”.

The excruciating pop inanities of “I see you in my dreams” (original music by Jeremy Warmsley) are warbled by celebrated television journalist and political pundit Sir David Bradley (a hybrid composite of Sir David Frost and Jeremy Paxman).

The presenter of a political talk-show, The Heart of the Matter, Sir David (Simon Hepworth) is renowned for his forthright, abrasive interrogations and high-brow dressing-downs. His exposure of MPs' failings, frauds and frailties have made him an establishment figure, lifting his power and status, at least in his own eyes, above that of his hapless, hypocritical interviewees.

The freedom of the press is the mainstay of democratic accountability and television is a serious part of the political process. But the relationship between the press and the politicians is a complex and contradictory one in this warped, futuristic social-media age. It is a symbiotic and self-serving conspiracy designed to deceive and dominate the ‘have nots’ and ensure that wealth and power stay in the hands of the ‘haves’.

The cosy co-dependence of the Second and Fourth Estates, however, is poisoned by mistrust and manipulation. Both sides will indulge in ruthless back-stabbing to protect their own backsides. Where does real power lie? With the law-makers and policy writers, or with those who control the information high-ways?

Smug and self-regarding, Hepworth’s Sir David begins his day with a bowl of cornflakes and a brisk flick through cable TV’s innumerable ads for insurance or toothpaste and promises of dating heaven and religious fulfilment. There’s an ominous edge, though: his morning cereal is accompanied by a swig of Scotch from a hip-flask, to keep the depression caused by his wife’s death at bay; his hand sports a bloody bandage concealing an ugly stump.

The tables begin to turn when The Freedom Party are elected to power by a disillusioned populous who are sick of being locked out and held in contempt by the cosmopolitan cultural elite. Their first act is to crack down on the mighty media and curtail press freedom: all news is to be broadcast through the new government’s own media channel and a law is passed banning the aggressive defamation of politicians. Hate crime is the new thought crime.

As press freedom is attacked, Sir David delivers a self-congratulating, vitriolic and reckless tirade against the corrupt politicians whom he is determined to expose and destroy. But, democracy is dangerous, as Bradley discovers when he interviews the Freedom Party’s photogenic, silver-tongued frontman Amanda Barkham (Zara Plessard). He finds his own—secretly recorded—words turned, literally, against him.

Plessard is cool and unruffled as Barkham: her apparent honesty wins over the television audience and she unsettles her host by knocking over her water and marring his carefully honed image of sophisticated superiority. Before Sir David knows it, he’s been manipulated into the hot seat. Prey becomes predator and the palindromic unravelling of his prestige and power begins, as Sutherland’s script goes into reverse.

Bradley has walked into a trap laid by the ‘Minister of Hell’ and it’s a bruising encounter, in all senses of the word. He is condemned by his own tongue and his direct questions are aimed at his own jugular. Shamed as a celebratory journalist who has exploited his position to evade public disgrace—while his wife lay dying, he was cavorting with prostitutes—it’s no surprise when he extracts handcuffs from the pocket of own jacket and shackles himself.

Sutherland can craft a sharp quip and, aided by the all too familiar images of cosmopolitan smugness which roll out on the backdrop video projections, the playwright punctures the oleaginous veneer of media moguls and political oligarchs alike. There’s no doubt that Party Trap is a technical tour de force: using constraint as a means of inspiration, Sutherland has produced an exercise in style worthy of an adherent of Oulipo.

But the intricate patterning of the form takes precedence over credibility and depth of character. As the script unwinds in retrograde, we know where we’re heading and the tension dissipates, despite the graphic violence of St David’s demise.

Moreover, in a play of 60 minutes, the reversal of Sir David’s fortunes feels too rapid. As Barkham begins her O’Brien-like interrogation, we move from 0 to 60 on the torture dial in the blink of an eye. Rob Watt’s sparsely furnished television studio morphs surreally into Room 101 and, stripped to his vest, Sir David is as vulnerable as Winston Smith.

Strapped to a chair and converted to the Party cause, he is bombarded with his own past until his replies confirm his compliance and acceptance. There’s no escape, after all, from his own echo. Bloodied and beaten, Sir David would admit that 2+2 does indeed make 5.

Jonathan Holby’s choreography of the torture scene is unsettlingly brutal and the balaclava-sporting Plessard is an unflinching persecutor, hobbling her victim and slicing off his ear with blithe indifference. By turns, she has the ‘air of a doctor, a teacher, even a priest, anxious to explain and persuade rather than to punish’. Hepworth convincingly displays first the wild fervour of deluded self-importance and self-belief, and then, when his Teflon smile and self-belief are painfully peeled off, he diminishes like a shrivelling deflated balloon.

Orwell’s O’Brien tells Winston that it is not enough for him to obey Big Brother; he must learn to love him. And so, humiliated and defeated, when Sir David joins Barkham in a reprise of the opening song, his eyes, which were clouded with the sadness of disillusionment, seem to regain some of their bright sparkle. But, the words have lost their original meaning: we’re back where we started and left, like Sir David, with nothing.

Reviewer: Claire Seymour