The National Joke

Torben Betts
The Stephen Joseph Theatre Company
Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough

Guy Burgess, Catherine Lamb and Philip Bretherton in The National Joke Credit: Tony Bartholomew
Cate Hamer and Catherine Lamb in The National Joke Credit: Tony Bartholomew
Cate Hamer and Annabel Leventon in The National Joke Credit: Tony Bartholomew

Torben Betts’s latest play has a twitchy energy: it’s concerned with the politics of short-termism and knee-jerk reactions. The reaction of an impatient ageing MP confronted with a jeering, aggressive mob. Those of the trial-by-social-media juries that dictate such men’s (it is usually men’s) careers. And those of the life-changing split-second decisions that can be driven by lust, by booze, by addiction.

It’s also atmospherically odd, and deliberately so. The action is set over a single period of twenty-four hours or less, with various scattered generations gathering in the extensive grounds of the family home to witness the solar eclipse, and to see off daughter Charlie (Catherine Lamb) as she emigrates to Australia.

Her step-father, Rupert St John-Green MP (Philip Bretherton), is anxiously awaiting news of his possible knighthood. His (second) wife Olivia (Cate Hamer) is berated by her imperious mother Mary (Annabel Leventon) for everything from the upbringing of her children to the thoroughness of the barbecue. Completing the (garden) party is unexpected guest Dan (Guy Burgess), a distinctly out-of-place Scouser whom Charlie has invited along. He may or may not be her boyfriend—and he’ll probably be the last to know.

Betts has woven a dense web of individual motivations, desires and backstories, and he further peoples the action with a similarly rich off-stage world. This is supported ably by excellent performances all round, and by Matthew Twaites’s soundscape and a superbly evocative lighting design by Jason Taylor. The ambience of the strange midday dark, seen by humans and other creatures throughout the ages as signs of impending doom, confusion and trouble, is conjured well at the central moment. Lucy Weller’s design is good too, subtly dividing the stage and stylishly dressing the actors.

The story feels timely for a number of reasons, decrying as it does political expenses and public gaffes and the seeming mastery of an ever-shrinking circle of public-school educated boys over an ever-larger domain. The widening poverty gap is at the heart of the play’s politics.

Tory MP Rupert comes in for unsurprising censure here, but is not unsympathetic—at least, no less sympathetic than the others. He’s lambasted at one point with a speech which seems drawn almost verbatim from this Guardian article: boarding-school educated Establishment bullies fundamentally all hate women (he is told), because "you can’t ever forgive your mothers for abandoning you".

Henry Bell directs pacily and with great clarity; barring a few strange moments of physical interaction, the actors use the space well and make great sense of the story, despite its jerky, overlapping rhythms.

There are powerfully delivered set-pieces here. In one central moment of the second half, Rupert pompously delivers (very convincingly) Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress in what feels like almost its entirety, intercut with some of the most dramatic confrontations of the other plots.

These rhythms are the trickiest element of the play, however. With often two conversations occurring ‘simultaneously’ in separate sections of the stage, and any one conversation frequently involving separate characters following separate trains (if not whole railway lines) of thought, it’s a demanding text over which the actors occasionally falter. Moreover, even given the best efforts of this talented ensemble, the direction at times struggles to maintain the momentum and line of flight of individual thoughts.

It often feels, then, more like a series of monologues elaborately intertwined than like dialogue. At the end, Rupert and Olivia almost engage in a conversation, but even then they fall back into the engrained pattern of following their separate mental paths, only rarely impacted upon by anything they might hear.

This, of course, might well be Betts’s point about the nature of communication, self-interest, and political discourse, but if so it doesn’t make for dramatic action. It’s finely crafted but wearing and, in the characters’ almost unremitting awfulness to each other, somewhat unpleasant to watch. I’m not sure any redemption claimed for the ending is earnt by what we’ve seen go before.

Especially in these strange days, watching people with opposing and entrenched views haranguing each other while unflinching from their own course may be revelatory of the harmful heart of our politics, but sadly it does not feel like this production proposes any positive alternative.

Reviewer: Mark Love-Smith

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