The Schuman Plan

Tim Luscombe
Hampstead Theatre
(2006)

Robert Schuman

The intentions behind this new play are entirely worthy and honourable. It attempts to place Britain's current attitudes towards Europe in a historical context, looking at both at the National and individual implications of our current position.

This sounds like it could provide for a very dry evening and, indeed, often has more of the feeling of a doctoral thesis on the history of Britain in Europe, rather than a staged drama.

It starts on a high, with a wittily poetic prologue looking briefly at the myth of Europa and how she came to occupy the space west of Asia.

We are then introduced to Robert Hands, who plays our guide, Europhile linguist Bill. In 1935, he is a nine-year-old philatelist who, aided by a xenophobic grandfather, tries to make sense of the constantly shifting Continent that will prove his life's work.

By the end of the play two-and-a-half hours later, he has proved to be a sounding board for British attitudes to European union, moving from idealist through supporter to pawn and finally sad cynic.

In the army, while having a basement tumble with a Dutch beauty, he is overseen by a piano-playing officer, Simon Robson's Teddy Heath, later better known as Conservative prime minister and architect of the British European entry, Edward Heath.

We learn much about Bill's attitude to life from his eagerness to debate Europe rather than enjoy Round 2 with his little Netherlands Miss.

In the 1950s, having learnt the posh accent that Heath had assured him was necessary for his future career, Bill suddenly appears as a junior aide to the then Prime Minister Clement Attlee (Sean Baker sneering for England in the role).

A little light comedy is injected by Elizabeth Hurran's Pippa, a modern young female adviser to the Prime Minister, whose hangover allows a few moments of welcome farce.

In one of the key scenes of both the play and European history, Attlee meets the Frenchman Jean Monnet who was the visionary behind what has now become the European Community.

The plan may have taken on the name of Robert Schuman, the French foreign minister at the time, but it was written by Monnet. In the play he is a rather cantankerous man who cannot understand the jingoism of the British Prime Minister who still sees a controlled empire as a better bet than the more local alternative.

The question is asked, what would have happened had Attlee taken Britain in to the original European Economic Community, and Luscombe's suggestion is that we might all have been very much better off.

The episodic play then moves on to Ted Heath's deal whereby Britain entered Europe in 1973 at the expense of its fishing industry, sacrificed for a wider ideal.

This links into a running series of short scenes drawn from a fishing village in Suffolk during 1992. There, Ken a fisherman who has long since ceased to make money from his trade must accept the loss of his fishing smack, represented by a proudly prominent prow emerging from Liz Cooke's backdrop. He is supported by Carolyn Pickles as his wife Hillary and to a lesser extent by a tyro Ipswich journalist of the "how do you feel" school.

In the end though, neither they nor Bill, by now relegated from the European Commission to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Foods, cannot prevent him from becoming Suffolk's equivalent to Czech martyr Jan Palach.

Robert Hands does well as Bill, a man who ages by around 80 years, though even he, like several of his colleagues, struggles to come to terms with a wordy script that must be nigh on impossible to learn and deliver.

Despite director Anthony Clark's finest efforts, The Schuman Plan always has the atmosphere of an illuminated history lesson rather than a gripping play. It attempts and sometimes succeeds in its goal of putting a context on to the meaning of Europe for Brits and for that it should be applauded.

If you are interested in European politics, this will prove a fascinating evening out and the purchase of the script an eye-opener and debate starter. If this is not your cup of tea and you couldn't care less about all those foreigners on the other side of the English Channel, you might be better off following the Swiss example and giving Europe a miss.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher