BWW Review: AN HONOURABLE MAN, White Bear Theatre
We're post-Brexit, but the political storms it unleashed have not abated. Joe Newman has been deselected from his Teeside constituency by a Momentum putsch, resigned his seat and then won it back in a by-election shock result, his decency and local work securing both the win and the national limelight.
Within days, he's receiving donations from the public and furtive calls from MPs on both sides of the House. Could it be the start of something big? If so, what is Newman's message, not just to the people of his constituency, but his country?
It's an intriguing setup, one that sparkles through a first half that sees Newman tear up the old norms of Left and Right and literally throw ideas on to a wall and see what sticks. Inevitably, populism starts to poke its grubby head out of the gutter, soon to be followed by its touchstone issue - immigration. Should the child of migrants and a compassionate man go full Katie Hopkins in search of votes?
En route, there's a few favours called in by writer (and political insider) Michael McManus, as a variety of political talking heads, including some very big hitters, pop up on the TV screen to lend verisimilitude to this future history - super work from Steve Broster.
It's not all grim though - there's biting satire, jibes thrown at some familiar targets, little hints about what might have happened to today's leaders post-2019 and some one-liners that could have come straight from HIGNFY. The Shakespeare quotes don't end with the title either - so there's plenty to chew on for those with ears to hear.
That humour proves to be a double-edged sword for the actors, who cannot be saved from toppling out of character and into caricature. Timothy Harker holds the centre as Newman, never quite losing control, but his secretary (Lisa Bowerman) and spad (Max Keeble) are left with nowhere to go, as the second half requires them to veer so far from the people we got to know in the first hour and ripen their performances to breaking point.
There's good work from Dee Sadler as Newman's old buddy, now morphed into Jiminy Cricket style conscience, Liz, and Annie Tyson as the Mo Mowlamish old Labour MP, Maggie. Poor Thomas Mahy does what he can with the woefully underwritten lover / activist, Josh and with a cardboard cutout PR man straight out of Spitting Image 1988.
And there hangs the problem for this play - there's just too much going on in a hectic last hour that largely eschews the earlier humour in favour of a roll call of wilder end of the alt-right's prescriptions for what ails today's polity. There's plenty of stuff from the playbooks as written by Steve Bannon, Marine le Pen, Geert Wilders and others who offer simple solutions to complex problems, often offered neutrally for cheers or disdain as you see fit. Though everyone around Newman thirsts for power, would they really embrace such extreme views so swiftly? In a production that works so hard (and correctly) to build a plausible reality, that seems a misstep.
The play - as befits one of ideas and ambition - is long, but still finds time for a lengthy excursion into sexual politics (Newman is a half-in, half-out gay in the way Peter Mandelson was for so long). Quite early on we're told that nobody cares from the political perspective, so we're left with the personal perspective - and a rather dull, join-the-dots failed romance that saps er.. momentum from the narrative.
Strange then that so much time could be spent on that subplot, but none found to give voice to the immigrants who sit, unseen and unheard, at the heart of Newman's new politics of social justice (for only for some). Though your reviewer finds the identity politics of theatre rather dull - counting up the number of BAME actors in a cast in order to berate the director seems trite - not to have any black or ethnic minority characters or actors in a play in which race is so central? Well, it seems almost perverse.
If the strength of each half were reversed, one would leave feeling more positive about the production, but the first hour promises so much that the second hour (with a deus ex machina clumsily thrown in to square a few circles) fails to deliver, that one feels, maybe unfairly, shortchanged.
Perhaps being let down by politicians promising more than they deliver is the meta message to take away from a play that boldly tackles the key issues in today's politics but doesn't solve the old theatrical ones of character, plotting and pacing.
Photo Lisa Bowerman and Claude Baskind