Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Charming Man at Theatre 503

Gabriel Bisset-Smith’s new play asks a pertinent question - is it possible to retain one’s integrity within the grip of the political machine? The resulting answer gets lost in a production that, while ambitious in scope, is also problematically muddled and unconvincing.

The main character, Darren, is a youth centre worker who, following an impassioned outburst at a local political meeting, rather improbably becomes the Green Party’s candidate for Number 10. Darren’s lack of political nous, his outsider status, is deemed an asset, but he’s also black and gay and the combination of both these factors works against him in the polls. If he’s to going have a real shot at the top he’ll have to fundamentally change who he is.

The tone of Bisset-Smith’s writing varies wildly, from the broad comedy of Lib Dems on Ice to something much more serious and contemplative: the erosion of Darren’s principles as he succumbs to the continued pressure to make compromises. But the play all too often seems to equate satire with extremes of character and of situation. So among its sizeable roster of characters, it incorporates a South African conspiracy theorist millionaire, the shadowy money man behind the Green Party, who explains that Obama’s election was down to a decade long project involving the oeuvre of Morgan Freeman and the insertion of a black president into the TV show 24. There’s also a hard-line right wing radio shock jock on whose show Darren volunteers to make an appearance. It’s possible to see what Bisset-Smith was aiming for in these scenes but too often the results feel naive rather than amusingly exaggerated or absurd.

Satire, of this particular stripe at least, needs to at least feel like it has a basis in something real or something the audience recognises as real, and Bisset-Smith’s play never really achieves this. The political side of things, the main thrust of the play, feels awkward and poorly thought through in a way that undermines the more successful elements. A number of the topical gags are properly funny, there are some interesting narrative slivers buried in the overstuffed script and the scenes between Darren and his boyfriend Luke feel plausibly intimate and genuinely warm, but the political material swerves all over the place and some of the scenarios really stretch credulity to snapping point, tipping from satire into silliness. Libby Watson’s sticky-backed plastic set doesn’t help matters; cheap and shiny, more Blue Peter than corridors of power, it further undermines the text.

The concept of even the most good-hearted and well-intentioned of men being broken down by a system that places only superficial emphasis on those attributes is a potent one, but Paul Robinson’s production only ever skates around this theme and doesn’t quite find a way of making it work.

The cast do well to ground the play and David Verrey in particular gives a well-judged and amusing turn as pompous politico Marcus, who jumps ship from the Greens when Darren is appointed, while Syrus Lowe is suitably charming yet understated in the main role, as the decent young man forced into the spotlight.

An extended version of a review that appeared in The Stage

1 comment:

Mary said...

nice theme