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Upper Cut

Juliet Gilkes Romero
W14 Productions
Southwark Playhouse

Akemnji Ndifornyen, Andrew Scarborough and Emma Dennis-Edwards Credit: Bob Workman

Juliet Gilkes Romero has written a good piece of agitprop that takes as its starting point the underrepresentation of the black constituency in Parliament.

Her starting point for Upper Cut is really strong but having come up with the idea she doesn’t make as much of the thesis as she might have.

For reasons that are never quite clear, it starts at the end, in 2012, by which time Michael Powers played by Akemnji Ndifornyen is Labour’s Shadow Deputy Prime Minister.

As he meets Emma Dennis-Edwards in the role of Karen Jackson, they are waiting to hear whether Barack Obama will achieve a second term in the White House. This is pertinent since Miss Jackson is about to take a political role across the pond.

From there, like Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, a work that also features two men and a woman that has loved both, the 90-minute drama tracks back across 25 years of political history.

However, little that happens after (or before depending on how you look at it) 1987 has any bearing on the key issues that the writer has set out to explore.

Once we get back to the days when Neil Kinnock was leader of the Labour Party attempting to depose Margaret Thatcher and become Prime Minister, the issues get rather more interesting.

Now, Powers and Miss Jackson are aspiring to become the party’s first black MPs. In both cases, their politics fluctuate from the scene to scene though each is on the radical wing of the party.

The catalyst for much of the action is Kinnock’s fixer, Andrew Scarborough of Downton Abbey fame taking the role of a kind of Alistair Campbell figure named Barry Reed.

He is appropriately duplicitous, playing one off against the other. The situation is spiced up a little since we learn early on that the lady has enjoyed, if that is the word, affairs with both men.

The critical evening in everyone’s lives occurs as the lady powerfully denounces the inaction of the party following the deaths of 12 black youngsters in carnage that the police seemingly refused to investigate properly in the evening’s strongest speech.

As a result, she is excluded from the Labour Party at exactly the moment when Powers begins to live up to his name, becoming an MP and starting his climb up the greasy pole to his august position a quarter of a century later.

For whatever reason, even after press night, the actors under the direction of Lotte Wakeham were not entirely comfortable, sometimes struggling to deliver their lines and in one case shouting them throughout as if to fill a much larger theatre than Southwark’s intimate Little.

While Upper Cut provides fascinating information about the difficulties that the Labour Party and its supporters faced in finding and promoting black MPs almost 30 years ago, the romanticising and characterisation add little to the plot, while the decision to reverse time and encompass a largely irrelevant 25-year period dilutes what should have been a much more powerful drama.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher