REVIEW: An Honourable Man (White Bear Theatre) ★★★
The recent vogue for plays set in the political world sees no sign of abating and here political consultant Michael McManus has used his inside knowledge of campaigning, to create a funny and interesting look into the near political future. McManus tries to examine how the current divisions in our politics might lead to a populist take over.
In the early 2020’s Joe Newman (Timothy Harker) is a northern Labour MP who has been de-selected by Momentum campaigners but then emerges victorious from the resulting by-election. Now an independent, his team, long-suffering Anne (Lisa Bowerman) and ambitious up-start Sam (Max Keeble) encourage Joe to take on the establishment and begin his own populist movement.
The team brainstorm a potentially winning policy platform that ends with a mix of Corbyn-esque economics and crucially an anti-immigration rhetoric that would feel at home on an EDL march. Within the team Sam cynically sees this as a convenient way to win, Anne seems to genuinely believe the north has been blighted by immigration whilst Joe’s neighbour Liz (Dee Sadler) acts as the group’s conscience and rails against the new direction. Fellow MP Maggie urges caution, quoting H. L. Mencken ‘that for every complex human problem, there is a solution that is neat, simple and wrong’.
The new party draws sufficient MPs into its ranks to bring down the government. Then we see the stresses and strains of a general election campaign on the new team as they take on the establishment and debate if a ban on the Burka is too far or not far enough.
McManus’ script is at its best when he is being funny, with plenty of topical jokes, barbs at current politicians, and acerbic take-downs of the current crisis in our democracy. Things don’t quite work so well when tension has to be built, or the discussion has to focus on relationships, in particular a slightly odd romantic storyline involving Joe and young Momentum activist Josh (Thomas Mahy). This attempt to humanise Joe is a little clunky and either needed more time to develop or could have been sacrificed. There is also a problem in the speed at which Newman goes from moderate Labour to alt-right anti-immigrant, the implication is that an MP with no previous history of ambition would happily sacrifice every shred of decency for a crack at power. This seems a little too simplistic and risks reducing the otherwise interesting character to a caricature.
Director Jolley Gosnold sets a high tempo and uses a clever device to move the narrative along, pre-recorded news footage shown on a TV at the back of the stage. Real newsreaders like Shaun Ley and Sue Cameron bring us up to date with events off stage whilst interviews with real politicians like Ken Clarke, Michael Cashman and Nigel Evans bring the wider political world into the close-knit team. A confrontation between Joe and MP Steven Pound filmed in Parliament Square was particularly fun.
The rest of Mike Lees’ design is kept simple although the black walls being used as a white-board for the brainstorming was a nice touch. Otherwise a small leather sofa is the centre of most of the drama and the small space means the audience feels like they are inside the heart of the action.
Harker is very good as Joe, able to deliver both the comic timing needed and emotional depth with equal skill. Dee Sadler is a lot of fun as Liz, happy to play a slightly larger-than life character but really punch out her anger at the scapegoating of immigrants. Mahy does a turn as a PR adviser that doesn’t really work as it just falls into a ridiculous stereotype but he is much more believable as Josh. The rest of the ensemble are fine and whilst occasionally the timing is slightly amiss it seems safe to assume this will tighten up as the run continues.
There is a lot to enjoy in this play, in particular the political jokes are razor sharp and regularly hit their targets. The performances are certainly at their best when the colleagues are laying into the dysfunctionality of the political scene. With a slightly better focus on the central narrative and perhaps a slightly less frantic second act this might well be a production that could succeed on a much bigger stage.
Reviewed by Kris Witherington
Photo: Lisa Bowerman and Claude Baskind
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