A View from Islington North, Arts Theatre ★★★

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

Out of Joint theatre company’s evening of political satire collects works old and new by some of our country’s best-known playwrights, taking potshots at several elements of the current political establishment to varying levels of success.

The first, oldest piece, is Mark Ravenhill’s The Mother, with Sarah Alexander as a foul-mouthed single mum whose machine-gun delivery is designed to prevent the two Army officials visiting her from delivering news she doesn’t want to hear. Like much of Ravenhill’s work, it is most effective when it stops trying to shock with repeated use of expletives and allows its characters space to breathe and interact. When Jane Wymark’s military commander snaps after the relentless torrent of monologue from Alexander’s mother, it is a shocking moment, but lacks the emotional connectedness that would make it believable. However, Alexander’s final conclusion to the playlet, as she is left alone with her emotions, is raw and powerful: easily the best part of Ravenhill’s contribution to the evening.

Caryl Churchill’s 2015 work Tickets are Now on Sale, in essence an extended sketch rather than a full play, sees Alexander and Steve John Shepherd replay a conversation between a couple, each time substituting everyday words with clichés from different areas of political activism, from green politics to Arab-Israeli campaigning. It’s deliberately ridiculous, delivered with aplomb by Alexander and Shepherd, and highlights how so many words and phrases that crop up in political spheres have been driven into banality through overuse.

Alistair Beaton’s The Accidental Leader, premiering in this collection, sees a Labour backbencher attempting to orchestrate a coup against Jeremy Corbyn in a piece which is moderately amusing, but otherwise lacks real bite. Joseph Prowen’s cocky parliamentary researcher is charming, if one-dimensional, but works best as the butt of the jokes from Corbynite interloper Nina (Sarah Alexander again, making her third appearance of the evening). While it expresses the clashing ideologies of the different ends of the Labour spectrum, otherwise it feels as if Beaton’s work has not much else to say.

Far more cutting is David Hare’s Ayn Rand Takes a Stand, in which the ultra-capitalist philosopher and novelist appears to counsel Gideon (the real name of chancellor George Osborne). Ann Mitchell’s Rand is a powerful and engaging onstage presence, whatever one may think of her absolutist approach to politics. She is an effective foil for Steve John Shepherd’s Chancellor, who is struggling with various usages of the word ‘free’ – from free markets and free trade to free speech.

But it is when Jane Wymark’s Theresa May enters that the play really begins to focus on the ideologies at the top of government that claim to value free speech, yet can only preserve it by removing access to it by people with whom they disagree. Far more effectively than Beaton’s piece managed with Labour, Hare’s evisceration of the contradictions at the heart of the current government feels vital and original.

In a way, it is a shame that Hare’s piece does not provide a stirring finale to the evening. Stella Feehily’s How to Get Ahead in Politics, in which an MP (Shepherd again) is taken to the cleaners by Bruce Alexander’s chief whip, has it moments, to be sure. Its principal target, the sexism at the heart of politics, also does need to be addressed. But it’s a setting that has played out far better in the likes of House of Cards, and so its message ends up feeling somewhat diluted. Matters are not helped by a clumsy scene change and a succession of line flubs, both of which should, of course, improve during the show’s run.

Indeed, there’s a sense throughout that this evening of political satire is a little too rough and ready. But among the rough there is the occasional diamond, Hare and Churchill’s pieces making everything else worthwhile.

Leave a Reply