Wednesday 16 September 2009

2nd May 1997 – Bush Theatre

[Written for CultureWars]

Set on the first day of New Labour’s landslide victory after 18 years of Conservative rule, Jack Thorne’s new play offers three half-hour duologue snapshots from three different bedrooms around the country. Unsurprisingly, given the play’s political theme, these are divided between the three main parties: Conservative, Lib Dem and Labour. I’ve got a horrible feeling that the pre-scene lighting state for each might even have been blue, yellow and red accordingly. The scenes also run the full gamut of human sexuality from gay to straight to Old.

The piece starts promisingly enough, with an Alan Bennettish couple fussing around. It soon becomes clear that he is a Tory cabinet minister about to lose his constituency. It isn’t quite clear why he isn’t at the count, but his ailing health – he is perpetually on the verge of a heart attack – might provide the answer. His wife fusses around him as he looks through their daughter’s holiday snaps. Dramatically, it’s all going quite well until he suffers some sort of minor seizure, staggers across the room, falls to the floor and is apparently able to get up again. There then follows a passage in which this 1997 Tory cabinet minister praises the political career of former Labour Home Secretary and Chancellor Roy Jenkins.

The speech feels like this erstwhile Tory has got a Labour playwright with a gun to his head making him say these meticulously researched, but almost anachronistic points. Jenkins’s achievements that he praises seem mostly to date from the sixties and early seventies, while his estimation of the man as a political player unaccountably overlooks the hash he made of Labour in the early eighties as part of the Gang of Four (the SDP leadership, not the band). In short, it is a curious bit of hagiography to surface and from a wholly unbelievable source. From here, there are a few little bits of Tory callousness, a monologue from the wife about her dutifulness, and both seem to have stopped being people and turned into ciphers for some ideas about the Conservative Party, which don’t ring nearly true enough. That is to say, they don’t sound like people who believe in Conservatism, but like the people that people who don’t believe in Conservatism think Conservatives sound like, while the minister’s heart condition feels like a vindictive metaphor too far.

Faring slightly better, the second scene offers a would-be one-night-stand between Ian, a Lib Dem party member, and a drunken young woman called Sarah he’s met at a Party election night party. This is Thorne on his home territory. Awkward, socially self-conscious, fumbled sexual encounters – á la Fanny and Faggot or When You Cure Me. And all in all, it mostly works. Granted the political content seems almost incidental, but this seems to work better. That said, perhaps the caricature of a Liberal bloke who really is much too nice for his own good is too clear an authorial comment. “But you’re not going to win the whole thing? You can’t win the whole thing?” Sarah asks him at one point, pretty much summing up his prospects as a human being. “Oh no... No... Definitely not” he replies with a perfectly judged smile that suggests a lifetime spent deliberately avoiding success.

If there’s a problem here, it’s more that designer Hannah Clark’s attractive, traverse box set – raised floor, walls at either end and a ceiling – built inside the Bush’s tiny above-the-pub space means that both actors are virtually hunching themselves in order to fit – especially when Phoebe Waller-Bridge is required to stand (well, semi-stand) on the bed.

The last scene – New Labour – is again an awkward negotiation, this time between two vaguely northern ‘A’-Level schoolboys. Both keen politics students and New Labour supporters – tellingly both presumably born at the beginning of Mrs Thatcher’s first term in office. One is gay and nursing an enormous crush on his apparently cleverer, richer, more attractive probably straight friend. The result is a direct toss up between The History Boys and Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing. The boys themselves, their awkwardness, gaucherie and ingenuous bravado are fairly well-drawn, although their sheer charmlessness is played rather too convincingly to make them sympathetic. Both, in fact, come across as so awful that watching becomes nail-bitingly embarrassing.

More problematically, again, the politics feel way too heavy-handed. Both are New Labour supporters. The poorer, less successful, more northern-sounding one is in love with the Cambridge-bound, posher, more attractive one. Have we got that metaphor now? Yes? Labour has won again, but it’s not what it were. It’s gone all posh, and the poor are still going to get left behind. Labour isn’t nice like what it used to be.

Perhaps it’s slightly unfair to read it so starkly, but it feels like these themes, which could be slowly, subtly occurring to us, are instead so underlined and flagged-up that it feels like Lehrstück. Moreover, the randomness of the scenes makes it feel like the whole should have more of a through line. Some sense of the overall dramaturgy adding more to the sum of the parts. Granted there’s a simple metaphorical chronology – from aging, nearly dead Tories through to bright, young, but set-to-be-disappointing New Labour, via a nice-but-pointless Lib Dem – but even this feels as if it would benefit from being shuffled. Given the heavy-handedness of the Labour and Tory segments, the piece is never going to feel anything other than didactic, but even so, choosing this most direct path through the early hours of election night still seems too much. It feels as if it needs more characters, more variety, much more randomness and much less overstated connectedness to the actual events. Thorne still has a gift for amusing dialogue and sympathetic characters, although one still yearns to see him produce a female character who isn’t a victim. Ultimately, though, 2nd May 1997 doesn’t show his undoubted talents off to their best advantage.

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