REVIEW: A Modest Little Man (Bread and Roses Theatre) ★★★

Journalist Francis Beckett has adapted his biography of the post-war Labour Prime Minister, Clement Atlee, into a short play that offers a humorous take on Atlee’s unique and understated leadership style.

Told mainly from the perspective of Atlee’s wife, Violet, the play focuses on the events following the Second World War when Atlee’s Labour Party defeated Churchill and set about transforming war-torn Britain through a programme of nationalisation, creation of the welfare state and the formation of National Health Service.

These momentous events are reduced to a series of short set-piece scenes that illustrate the relationships Atlee had with some of the key players in the Labour Government including his ambitious Deputy Herbert Morrison, Welsh fire-brand Nye Bevan, gruff West-County union-man Ernie Bevin, and posh gossip Hugh Dalton. There are also brief flash-backs to Atlee’s youth when volunteering in the East End exposed the privately educated Oxbridge lawyer to the inequalities and poverty of Victorian society and to his first election campaign in Limehouse 1922.

The play does well to set the context without over-labouring the point and the use of Violet (Lynne O’Sullivan) to act as narrator is a sensible approach to linking the different events. There is clearly an affection for the protagonists and the humour is playful and respectful rather than sharp and vindictive. However, Owain Rose’s direction lacks energy and as a result the play feels slow and a little flabby in places. Period music plays to cover the scene changes but given the only props are chairs and a desk this seemed superfluous.

Roger Rose does well to convey Atlee’s reputation as a modest, quiet man who used his succinct and aloof approach to his colleagues to manage the clashing egos around him. His voice is barely audible at times and the dialogue is clipped to minimise the number of words used to convey his instructions. With some of the more comic lines slightly crisper timing would have helped. O’Sullivan is warm and welcoming as Violet bringing the audience into events. Clive Greenwood has fun with the radical Nye Bevan, is good as King George VI in an awkward meeting with Atlee but is slightly less convincing as Ernie Bevin. Silas Hawkins does a reasonable Churchill impression, hams it up as the flamboyant Dalton and is fine in a brief role as a Times journalist. Steven Maddocks is fine as Herbert Morrison and gets many of the laughs as his character’s hubris is exposed. Charlotte Campbell plays Bevan’s wife Jenny Lee as well as a young activist Rose and struggles with both parts. Lee was from Fife and whatever accent was being attempted it certainly wasn’t sited anywhere near Scotland. As Rose, Campbell’s timing was frequently off and her delivery was poor.

The life of Clement Atlee perhaps deserves a greater stage and larger scale telling of his story but this is at least an affectionate and accessible introduction to the way Atlee went about bringing together one of the most transformative governments in British history. The core performances are good and there is enough good-natured humour to cover up the other deficiencies in the production.

Reviewed by Kris Witherington
Photo: Mark Thomas
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