“a thought-provoking piece that is distinctly aware of the importance of remembering the past in difficult political climates”
Clement Attlee was described as a ‘little mouse’ (Hugh Dalton), a man that had ‘no natural presence’ (Sir Alan Lascelles). It seems difficult, therefore, to make a play out of his life. But it is not impossible and it seems important to try. On the eve of the destruction of it, this timely play tracks how such an unusual man came to power and set up the Welfare State. Written by his biographer, Francis Beckett, the play is full of fascinating historical detail and cutting one-liners even when it falters in the drama.
The piece unfortunately lacks momentum, rendering the emotional tone unchanging. The most poignant moment is saved for the end, for Attlee’s final speech which resonates in its simplicity and resolve. It seems an enormous challenge to get underneath Attlee’s quiet modesty. What the play loses in pace, it gains in gradually establishing Attlee’s personality.
Roger Rose’s Attlee is appropriately subtle, with small but significant movements that bring the character to life. Lynne O’Sullivan plays Violet Attlee, who also narrates the story and does a wonderful job of holding the piece together with empathy and humour. Clive Greenwood’s performances as King George VI, Nye Bevan and Ernest Bevin are particularly enjoyable and dynamic.
Though the lights could be a little glaring, Owain Rose’s direction is uncomplicated and effective. The modest table and chairs makes for a stage that concentrates on the story and the characters’ relationships. The cast generally hold the array of characters well, though there are a few accents out of place and the odd forgotten line. Indeed, the highlights of the play are when the cast are onstage together, debating about how to negotiate the creation of the National Health Service and other nationalisation plans against the tide of criticism and financial difficulties.
Beckett’s text struggles to make a drama out of Attlee’s career. What it does instead, is make an important and admirable political commentary. Beckett’s writing does not attempt to romanticise the post-war period which so many other writers have. There are clear allusions to Corbyn and a fearless criticism of a class prejudices that are, clearly, very relevant today. This is a thought-provoking piece that is distinctly aware of the importance of remembering the past in difficult political climates.
“a piece of solid playwriting enhanced by authentic acting with flashes of true humanity”
This short and punchy two-hander, written and directed by Mimi Monteith, perhaps invokes the Chekhovian gun principle. Much as one shouldn’t place a loaded gun on stage unless the performance will see it fire, we might say that a play that mentions Sarah Kane’s bleak 4.48 Psychosis halfway through should deliver on its suicidal associations. I won’t confirm or deny whether that happens here, but the at-first playful dialogue between actors Daniel Lockett and Lily Cooper certainly takes a dark turn.
Cooper and Lockett are believable as third-year drama students – uncomfortably so, with lazy sexist ‘banter’ and gossip about mutual friends. The simple staging supports the uni hangout vibe; studenty tapestries and worn armchairs abound. With all the narcissism you’d expect of twenty-something trainee playwrights facing a nocturnal assignment crisis, the characters are not entirely likeable. I suspect this pair would be familiar to any recovering drama school attendees.
That said, they’re hard to dislike too, in no small part thanks to the impressive efforts of a talented pair of young actors. Cooper, as Fliss, gets the better deal, with richer lines offering up a more fully rounded character. She is in turns playful and sulky, and despite some initial unpromising dialogue when we first find our cast on stage, this witty character quickly takes on life. Lockett finds himself as more of a foil to Cooper, with less clarity around motivations. His tough gig requires him to demonstrate a remarkable range of human emotion within the play’s taut 45 minutes. Add to this the fact that his powerful closing speech unfortunately represents some of the weakest writing, and it’s easy to feel that Lockett has been given an almost impossible task. Nonetheless, he copes manfully, with moments of real emotional nuance.
This skilful acting is sometimes a little undermined by clunky lighting and music, which feels like a missed opportunity. The lilting musical refrain at the climax feels laboured, and the same song at the start risked drowning out Lockett’s opening words in this performance. Similarly, the offstage presence of a sinister abusive partner might perhaps have been even more fully realised using the affordances of sound or light.
4.48 Psychosis this may not be (and many might be relieved at that). It is, however, a piece of solid playwriting enhanced by authentic acting with flashes of true humanity.