Dominic Cavendish thinks this year’s theatre lacks relevance to current affairs. He’s probably been working under a commercial and subsidized theatre-shaped rock (as mainstream critics are prone to), citing Anders Lustgarten’s Lampedusa as, “number one in a field of one” where, “nothing stood out as ‘the’ play for today.” Matt Trueman defends theatre’s ability to respond at the speed Cavendish would like, and also cites several examples Cavendish neglected: “The Fear of Breathing by Zoe Lafferty and Lucien Bourjeily’s 66 Minutes in Damascus, part of the 2012 LIFT festival, spring to mind, though Cordelia Lynn’s Lela & Co was set in an unnamed country gripped by a similar civil war.” Also springing to mind and not set in Syria but Liberia, Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed starkly presents the victims of another civil war.
The nightmare in Syria driving tens of thousands of people to flee their homeland in search of safety demands global action and aid, of course. But there were numerous other hotbed issues addressed in British theatre over the past year, even the last couple of weeks. Theatre Ad Infinitum’s Light looked at government surveillance, As Is reminded us that AIDS diagnoses are on the rise, Goodstock describes the uncertain life as a young woman with a high risk of breast cancer. Down & Out in Paris and London rallies support for the working poor, The State vs. John Hayes gives us the last night of a schizophrenic woman on death row, and Skyline is a relentless attack on the London housing crisis. There are many others as well, and that’s just in the past year of one critic’s theatregoing.
Within the past week, The Old Red Lion opened Arthur Miller’s first play, No Villain, a love letter to communism and the strikers of 1936 New York City. Accomplished theatre critic and author T L Wiswell also offered her latest work for two nights only, a satirical update of Dickens’ classic Christmas novel to the current 10 Downing Street, The Xmas Carol. That’s just at one venue, not specifically known for political theatre. The Xmas Carol has a dig at pop culture/The X-Factor to frame the consequences of David Cameron’s legislation on everyday, working people after his annual Christmas party, similar to Miller’s use of the strikes to focus on the life of one family out of millions. Both plays need further development (though it’s obviously too late for Miller), but both brashly and fearlessly confront the politics of their day.
In The Xmas Carol, Simon Cowell (Chris Royds) introduces his latest programme that’s sure to be a ratings hit; it’s an interesting meta-theatrical device that works towards justifying Cameron’s (Warren Brooking) travels through his past, present and future. Jason Meininger’s lighting and Keri Danielle Chesser’s sound effectively evoke transitions in time and space. Some more exposition to set up the television show that Cowell is steering would have clarified Cameron’s complicity and aim to improve his ratings, but the device itself is a creative deviation from having Cameron fall asleep and dream the whole thing.
There are some great impressions in the cast, particularly from Luke Theobald as Ghost of Christmas Past Margaret Thatcher. Brooking could have been a louder, bolder Cameron but he captures an element of the man in his gestures and general lack of humanity. Will Bridges is an amusing, though not particularly accurate Jeremy Corbyn but as this is a satire, his punditry can be excused. Jenny Wills as Cameron’s PA Bob Cratchett brings some grounded naturalism to this piece. She’s a lovely character, warm and family focused, with some good dialogue, but her performance style jars with the heightened delivery from the rest of the cast. It works to ground Cameron’s devastating policies in reality, but she could use some backup from other characters. As the play’s currently just under on hour, more down-at-heel, working people could easily be brought in to further emphasise the battle between the ridiculous politicians and celebrities, and the everyday man.
Having gone to a reading of The Xmas Carol about a month ago, the concept has developed quite a bit since then, but the structure could still use additional tightening and detail. More dialogue and exposition will help, particularly in the beginning and end. There are some genuinely funny moments and well-crafted scenes, but a brief resolution. The Tory criticism is relentless and mocking but also pointed and moving. Wiswell is certainly in the process of striking a good balance within the piece, but it needs just a bit more shaping.
Both The Xmas Carol and No Villain are highly political, but in very different ways; the same can be said of many of the aforementioned productions. Sure, they’re not about Syrian civil war and refugees, but they focus on diverse, divisive issues relevant to contemporary life. Perhaps Cavendish needs to visit the fringe more: it’s where angry voices can express their views unfettered, without the burden of corporate sponsors and other such bureaucratic obstacles. These shows don’t have the high production values or years of development and funding that commercial theatre does, but political theatre on the fringe is some of the most raw, honest, relevant theatre I have seen this year.
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