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Arts feature

If you thought politics was boring, you should check out today’s political theatre

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

2 May 2015

9:00 AM

2 May 2015

9:00 AM

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. Mind you, nor was the thought of reducing the council’s expenditure on itself.

Scottish independence was tackled in Spoiling, which sped south from the Edinburgh Fringe last September and reached Stratford East. It now feels like an act of prophecy. The central character is an ultra-stroppy blonde Scottish leader who confronts a cabal of London plotters determined to humiliate her and destroy her government. What makes this scenario astonishing is that it takes place after a successful independence campaign. The UK is extinct in this play. Scotland is free. Its first minister rules a sovereign nation and she visits England as a foreigner. Yet she’s convinced that mysterious ‘Westminster’ forces are tweaking the puppet strings in Edinburgh. What the SNP fears even more than being ruled from London is not being ruled from London.

The theatre of despair has been conspicuous recently. Two plays looked at inequality in a world of fiscal disorder. Islands at the Bush and How To Hold Your Breath at the Royal Court concluded that everyone is a victim and nothing can be done about it. Which isn’t particularly helpful. The housing crisis spawned a brace of shows that used an identical device. In Game at the Almeida and Radiant Vermin at Soho homeless people were killed by yuppies for sport or profit. These shows relied on two puzzling assumptions. First, that homelessness is caused by home-owners who are therefore evil and psychotic. Secondly, that the audience would accept this bilge as fact. The truth is that London’s theatre-goers tend to be affluent and therefore propertied. Telling them their home is a crime, and that they dream of butchering vagrants, is a curious way to do business. None of these four plays prospered.

The finest political drama of the coalition era, This House, studied the Labour administration of the mid-1970s. Those who were alive at the time can remember the sense of frustration and helplessness that beset the Westminster system. The estimable playwright, James Graham, spotted something no one else had. Politics in the 1970s was exciting. And the seat of drama was the Labour whips office. The government’s knife-edge majority was imperilled by the physical condition of its MPs. In those days, a typical Labour member was a 20-stone alcoholic ex-miner in his late 60s whose idea of an upper-body workout was to hoist the lid off a packet of Benson & Hedges. These old husks slithered into the grave with alarming regularity. Every other month there was a by-election that threatened to bring down the government. Graham will follow up this hit show with a new play, The Vote, set in a polling station during the last 90 minutes of the general election. The production will be broadcast on Channel 4 on 7 May in real time starting at 8.30 p.m. Sounds fascinating but I doubt if it’ll become a classic.

The excellent stage version of Chris Mullin’s diaries, A Walk On Part: The Fall of New Labour, provided the best political joke of the past five years. And it’s not strictly a joke. It happened. Mullin was at a Downing Street function where he overheard Cherie musing on her husband’s retirement plans. ‘I married an idealist,’ she said. ‘When Tony gives up politics he’s going to teach in Africa.’

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