Magazine article The Spectator

Arts Feature: The State of Political Theatre

Magazine article The Spectator

Arts Feature: The State of Political Theatre

Article excerpt

How has political theatre fared during the coalition? Not very well, writes Lloyd Evans

Writers and producers have shown little appetite for putting the coalition on stage. Several reasons suggest themselves. In 2010 wise pundits assured us all that the Rose Garden duo would squabble and part long before the five-year term expired, and theatre folk were persuaded not to gamble on a ship that might sail at any moment. And the conduct of parliamentarians has been pretty unhelpful to dramatists. Chastened by the expenses scandal, MPs have reinvented themselves as models of probity and self-restraint. The Commons has been all but free of sin. Eric Joyce cracked a few skulls. Nadine Dorries bunked off for a fortnight in the jungle. The occasional ex-minister has been caught hustling undercover hacks for a day or two's work. Even the cabinet have behaved like nuns. David Laws confessed to a minor fiddle. Grant Shapps was discovered to have a doppelgänger that made more money than he did but the ghost has now been exorcised. The only notable pregnancy occurred between a pair who were married to each other, the Camerons. What must Cecil Parkinson think?

Another difficulty with political drama is the gestation period required to bring a new play into being. To get from the first draft to the first night in the West End within 12 months would be swift work. So dramatists need to find an issue that has ceased to develop politically but which still grabs the public's attention. MPs' expenses fitted the bill. The story broke in 2009 but it was another four years before The Duck House , by Dan Patterson and Colin Swash, opened in Guildford in 2013. It was a terrific crowd-pleasing farce featuring a corrupt but likeable Labour MP who has to race around his country mansion concealing the evidence of his peculation from his political masters. The show toured the Home Counties and completed a decent four-month stint at the Vaudeville. Then it closed. Perhaps the public's outrage had abated or perhaps, as someone said, 'It was so good at soothing angry voters that it died of its own success.' A revival is said to be in the pipeline.

The never-ending Billy Elliot , which commemorates the 1984/5 miners' strike, has a new political rival in the West End. Made in Dagenham is set in a car plant in the 1960s and follows a sisterhood of plucky seamstresses who rise up against their thick, bigoted male bosses and score a famous victory. The show is a highly efficient fairy tale extolling the virtues, and overlooking the perils, of union militancy. But neither of these class-war musicals could have flourished at the time in which they're set. People used to flee Britain to escape our strikes. Now they come here to watch our strikes as escapism.

A more clear-eyed account of socialism in action came from Jack Thorne at the Royal Court. Not many enjoyed his play Hope , which looked at a bankrupt Labour council struggling with austerity. Thorne, of course, is an Old Labour groupie who takes a rather casual approach to public finances. You tax like a dictator and you spend like a dictator's wife. But his play was warm, quirky and humane. Rather than getting angry or ducking witches, he turned the spotlight on a set of leftie politicians trying to implement their sixth-form dreams on a zero budget. The Tories weren't mentioned once. …

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