A View From Islington North is that most rare and exotic of theatrical treats: an anthology of satirical political plays which entertain and amuse while opening your eyes to things that have always been directly in your gaze but not necessarily noted. Give Max Stafford-Clark a medal – this is urgently needed theatre, responsive to our troubled times.
What’s the point of winning at any cost if everything remains the same?
Collections of short plays which riff on the same or similar themes are infrequent options for visitors to the theatre in London, even rarer on the West End. Yet, as Max Stafford Clark’s stylish and razor-sharp evening at the Arts Theatre, A View From Islington North, demonstrates with casual assurance, such evenings can be engaging, provocative and fun – simultaneously.
If there is a running theme in this evening of political playlets, loosely that theme is summed up the quote from Billy Bragg’s engaging ditty, which closed the evening, full cast in sing-a-long mode. But each of the five plays presented are very different in tone and style, with some more successful than others, but together creating a dégustation menu for those starved of thoughtful political writing.
Indeed, if there is a quibble to be had with the evening, it lies in the arrangement of two of the pieces. Caryl Churchill’s Tickets Are Now On Sale is a refreshing Amuse-bouche and truly ought to have started the evening’s fare. If Mark Ravenhill’s The Mother had followed it, rather than preceded it, it’s reception may have been better.
Both are very funny pieces in their own way, but Churchill’s is shorter, sharper and sensationally subdued. It’s a real mood setter, a crowd relaxant. As is to be expected, there is little subtle about Ravenhill’s text, although it too has much to say.
Few in the audience I saw A View From Islington North with found anything funny about the Ravenhill, and most took a long time to recover from it in time to enjoy the Churchill. This was a pity, as both are quite terrific.
Mark Ravenhill is the only author on the planet who can make one contemplate what the collective term is for cunts. There might be a Parliament of Owls but what is the appropriate term for cunts? It may seem spurious but this play makes you wonder.
Because Hayley, the titular Mother, can’t stop flinging the word around. One decided that either Cornucopia or Carnival was perhaps the term – because although the word is insulting and demeaning when used by a male, it is somewhat different when a female hurls the word around as if it were “and”.
Of course, Ravenhill likes to shock, and a Cornucopia or Carnival of cunts is one way to achieve that. So Hayley spews forth the word endlessly. But, as is the way of Ravenhill, there is a reason for the invective.
This is a bitter and affecting tale. A mother, with mental health problems, a victim of the “system” is visited by army officers who want to tell her her son has died in active service. She doesn’t want to hear it, just as she doesn’t want to hear the pious platitudes from doctors and social workers who don’t try to help her but want to tick box her.
She is a great tragic figure – torn apart, inside and out, by things not of her choosing. Kathryn O’Reilly is superb in the part – vicious, unrelenting, scared, broken, but, above all, maternal.
O’Reilly (who took over the roles played by Sarah Alexander on 6 June and therefore does not appear in many of the production shots) is brittle and brilliant. Her biting attack on Joseph Prowen’s young soldier is awful to watch but somehow comprehensible. Her son has died in a war she doesn’t understand, didn’t want to believe in and had forced upon her.
Jane Wymark does her best with the older Army character, but it is not an especially well-written role. The true grit here lies between O’Reilly’s mother and Prowen’s son-substitute who comes to tell her her boy has died and she should feel patriotic about it. There are heart-wrenching moments as well as caustic, funny tirades
Against all this is the background that the system for which he son died has, inevitably and despite his sacrifice, let his mother down. She is a mess, fighting against the NHS numbers game to retain any shred of decency and self-respect.
Ravenhill has written a brutal and pungent piece, profoundly affecting. It was originally part of another work, Shoot/Get Treaure/Repeat, but it brings power to this presentation.
The audience I saw this play with did not care for the Cornucopia or Carnival – but Ravenhill was right to disturb their comfort zones. Utterly right.
Tickets Are Now On Sale
This sequence is short, but incredibly clever.
A middle class couple, of reasonable means and ambitions for happiness, discuss their day and their plans for a sunny afternoon. They do this with an economy of movement and a series of definite moves.
Then, they repeat the moves precisely, but the words they speak are different. Jangled, tumbled, incoherent, yet symbolic of the kind of language one might hear in a good restaurant in Islington as the ‘clever’ people chat about their vacuous or important (or both) lives.
Its a very effective, funny and devastating piece from Caryl Churchill, played with impeccable sangfroid by Steve John Shepherd and Kathryn O’Reilly (who is almost utterly unrecognisable as the mother from the previous scene). Shepherd does some business with his nose which is truly hilarious as the content of their “communication” morphs from brands, to corporate speak to other horrors of modern business language.
The serenity of the opening couple, unburdened by the weight of modernity, is smashed by the gibberish of modern “success”. It might not last ten minutes, but Churchill’s play leaves much food for thought.
Like a gently poached quail egg smothered in blueberry jam, it lets you see that while the ingredients of social climbing might be desirable on their own, in combination they can be ruinous.
The Accidental Leader
Alistair Beaton’s contribution could have been easily called The Night Of Corbyn’s Long Knives – Not. No names are mentioned, but this is clearly a piece about the dissatisfaction the traditional New Labour guard have with Jeremy Corbyn. But, in the process of telling the story the right and left wing media would have be gospel – that Corbyn is unelectable – Beaton raises interesting points.
In order for New Labour to exist, there had to be an Old Labour, and what has happened to that voice? Why should the young, whose lives have been shaped, sanded and shattered, by those who were trained and brought up before Thatcher, not have a say in the way forward? Who says that blancmange is the best dessert, the only course a sensible person would take?
What value is placed on loyalty, consistency or, shock horror, popularity, in the face of entrenched entitled disinterest?
Beaton teases all of this out in a farcical piece about a backbencher leading a revolt against a Corbyn figure. A self-righteous backbencher is willing to sacrifice the entire shadow cabinet and their careers to reinstate “the old ways”. And eleven shadow ministers go along with him, all so sure of their electoral prowess – just so long as the press doesn’t find out and scuttle their secret betrayal of their leader.
Inevitably, the press does find out. An errant email warning the traitors not to send emails about their plan is sent in error to a supporter of the Corbyn figure and the dominos fall. Naturally, the back-bencher, who has nothing to lose, tries to persuade the women shadow ministers to take a stand, sacrifice themselves, because that is the sort of ludicrous pricks most male back-benchers are, at least ones who imagine the throne and sceptre as their own.
The acting here is terrific: Bruce Alexander is deliciously revolting as the Brutus back-bencher, awash with bluster and blarney, but ghastly through and through; Joseph Prowen is oily and detestable as the aide who can’t spell loyalty or find a clitoris, even his clothes are repellent; Jane Wymark is brittle and composed as a shadow minister who loathes her leader and what he stands for – change and what the electorate might actually want – but doesn’t have a principle except survival; and Kathryn O’Reilly (in her third exceptional performance) is a gutsy supporter of the incumbent leader who calls the bluff of the established others and scuttles their clumsy revolution, reminding them as she does so, that politics are about the people who vote not the people for whom votes are cast.
The Accidental Leader is terrific. You could write if off as obvious and the kind of stuff you read in the papers daily – but its value is in representing the rumours and suspicions on stage. And seeing Caeser get past the Ides of March.
Ayn Rand Takes A Stand
Truly, this new work by David Hare demonstrates his ability to create wonderful roles for women. Ann Mitchell gives a glorious, Russian-accented turn as a woman of intellectual power and faded but still formidable sexual charisma as Ayn Rand. What Mitchell does is worth the entire evening – it’s a gutsy, gluttonous and gorgeous performance, laced with venom and articulate splendour.
She extols the virtues of the free market to her willing, able and utterly submissive Gideon (okay, we know he is George Osborne really). The entire time you can imagine them in bondage gear and her whipping him into a frenzy, shouting free market, free market; him escalating shouts of “Yes!”
This being David Hare, the dialogue is clever and precise, the arguments tucked within stinging traps. When Therese May or May Not joins the fray, barbs about the free movement of labour leave their welts. Hare, unusually, doesn’t take sides: he lampoons both ends of an entrenched argument and slices open the fault lines of both.
Despite excellent turns from Shephard (a sweaty, moist Gideon) and Wymark (a witch refusing to see what the mirror reflects), this portion of the evening is entirely Mitchell’s. She is both plum pudding and custard – a glorious, indulgent treat. One you will definitely remember.
How To Get Ahead In Politics
Stella Feehily provides the final work: a very funny tale of a powerful Whip sending an MP who can’t keep his trousers zippered up into political oblivion. Watching it, one felt the need for a new version, a truer, crueller and more malignantly honest version of Yes Minister to be on our television screens.
You could watch this stuff for hours – because it isn’t fiction really, it is just reflective of the appalling examples many shady MPs, from both sides of the House, give to history.
Shepard is marvellous as the man who can’t see what the fuss is about – so he offers his private member to women? Shouldn’t they be grateful? And Alexander is terrific as the Whip who enjoys bringing down another MP. Prowen completes the trio, utterly obsequious but potentially Caligula. Three very engaging, witty performances.
No Buddy, No
Billy Bragg’s musical finale provides an opportunity for the entire cast to be on stage and singing a fruity, delectable tune. Prowen takes the lead and displays good pipes. The whole effect is very satisfying.
It was hard not to think that more songs, between each playlet, may have given the evening more bite, in the mode of Oh, What A Lovely War!.
Throughout, Tim Shortfall’s frugal settings and furnishings were pitch perfect; everything was well lit by Jason Taylor. Brigid Guy provided spot on costumes and Dyfan Jones’ sound design, especially in the Churchill piece, was exquisite.
Vastly entertaining – rarely has a political evening at the theatre so induced a feeling of “Let’s press the restart button” quite so profoundly. Stafford-Clark has presided over a worthwhile and timely achievement that is fabulously entertaining.
The theatrical crime here is that the audiences are small. This is one of the best shows in town – it should be at the National.