The cast: back row, Max Keeble, Timothy Harker, Lisa Bowerman,
front row, Annie Tyson, Thomas Mahy, Dee Sadler
‘… a skillful dissection of modern British society and the stark exposure of a political system that is broken at both ends’
Are British politics broken, and how can we fix them?
In a not-too-distant future, where Brexit is a done deal and Trump has given way to the administration of Mike Pence, playwright Michael McManus weaves a tale of political endeavour infused with contemporary references and cutting insights in a damning indictment of the political classes.
Under Jolley Gosnold’s skillful direction, the reduced set – a leather sofa, matching sets of office chairs and filing cabinets - are manipulated to create all the scenes. It’s dominated by a large television screen which interrupts the action to give regular media updates from the Truth news channel. This is one of the show’s gems: it is utterly convincing as a bone fide channel and features cameo performances from a range of actual politicians, including most notably a key comment delivered by Kenneth Clarke.
The narrative revolves around the political campaign of Joe Newman, a former Labour MP whose fall out with his peers comes back to bite them when he runs for reelection as an independent MP, and wins. In a clear case of simply being the right man in the right place at just the right time, his victory inspires a wave of support which begins to rapidly gain impetus. While Labour’s Chief Whip seems desperate for Joe to return to the fold, bringing his new found popularity with him, the climate seems right for a more radical possibility – to start a new party of his own.
Ambitions flair, both benevolent and personal, and this paves the way for some intense political theorizing. Joe (played with great thoughtfulness and aptitude by Timothy Harker) and his band of aides wax lyrical on the chronically defective political climate and attempt to thrash out some solutions. This is where the play is in danger of becoming a political sermon, but McManus manages to keep the rhetoric contained within the characters and their dialogue. What we witness is a skillful dissection of modern British society and the stark exposure of a political system that is broken at both ends. The newly-styled People’s Popular Vote Party have a clear aim, to take the best qualities from both sides of the spectrum and find a third way forward: to embody both right-wing patriotism and left-wing socialism.
As Joe’s campaign continues the pressure on him to stick to his guns becomes more difficult. The desire to make a difference clashes with the need to make vote-winning pithy media statements. The advantages of being popular are plagued by the need to be popularist. Even within his own office he struggles to untie some surprisingly strong political differences. Lisa Bowerman’s Anne is fervent in her views on immigration while Sam, here played by Max Keeble, is intent on establishing his own political career. Annie Tyson, as Maggie, provides the voice of experience and helps to keep Joe focused. The possibility of power affects each of his staff in their own way.
With so many voices battling for his attention, it takes a physical act, an act of home-grown terror from within his own party which is both political and horribly personal to realise how far he is in danger of straying from his own principles.
Political drama can become stuffy, but there is no room for that here. Sharp, fast-paced and cutting dialogue is delivered by passionate and vulnerable characters. In this respect each role is well cast, including Dee Sadler as best friend Liz and Thomas Mahy as Josh, a former colleague and…well…it’s complicated…
But what really lends weight to this production is the experience of its writer. McManus has himself had quite a varied career in politics, which probably explains how he was connected enough to convince the likes of Ken Clarke to make an appearance. His insider understanding of government enables him to paint this stark portrait of the social climate which reflects the growing awakening of public political consciousness. He asks whether it is possible for any party to fix a broken nation (as he clearly believes it is) without succumbing to the same pitfalls as their predecessors. Is there a better, nobler, more honourable way?
Sadly, since Joe is no more than a fiction, we’ll have to watch this space.
Editor's Note: Liza Bowerman is one of our wordplayers, read the interview here
An Honourable Man by Michael McManus
The White Bear Theatre, Kennington, 20 November – 8 December 2018
Box Office: https://www.whitebeartheatre.co.uk/
Reviewer Mike Swain is a professional actor, writer and director from Nottingham. He holds a BA Hons Performing and Media Arts from the University of Derby and creates devised physical work through his company, Rats With Wings Theatre Collective.