There is a real need for art to explore the causes and roots of our current populist phase of politics. Unfortunately, this is not that.
While well-acted and thoughtfully staged, at every turn the writing let this play down badly. It seemed to be set – for no particularly good reason – in the near future. This is indicated by the mention of President Pence and a throw-away reference along the lines of “look what happened to poor old Corbyn”. But there was no understanding of what that meant, why such changes had happened, and what that meant to the drama.
The story follows Labour MP Joe Newman (Timothy Harker), who is deselected by his local Momentum group and goes on to win a by-election as an independent. Along the way he is blackmailed over his sexuality as it is revealed he had a love affair with the (male) leader of his local Momentum group who led the campaign to deselect him; he also sets up a new populist (and racist) party and makes and loses friends and colleagues.
The playwright – Michael McManus – is an established political journalist and former Conservative Party Candidate. The latter might explain the absolute lack of knowledge about the Labour Party – evident throughout the play. The Former makes the constitutional errors unforgivable. Very little that happens in this play could or would ever really take place – in particular the trite ending which managed to be as predictable as it was preposterous.
The politics of this piece are all over the place – never managing to quite land anywhere recognisably Labour. The easy slip to racism by Joe and his Parliamentary Assistant Anne (Lisa Bowerman) may seem realistic from an external perspective (given the awful antisemitism crisis and the adoption by some of Brexity language around immigration). But the truth is that while Labour certainly has a populist and even occasionally isolationist streak, this adoption of a UKIP style message would get very short shrift in any Party meeting I’ve ever been to. Their comfort in saying the unsayable to each other was simply not realistic in a Party where half of this script would have you reported to compliance.
The play did not explore properly what the appeal of populism is. It just assumed that the mad fudge that was the People’s Popular Movement would appeal. But currently, UKIP are struggling to break into double figures. So what’s different in this world?
The internal politics of the Labour Party are mad, complicated, and difficult for an outsider to understand. But if you choose to write about them, you really need to learn a bit more about what motivates people politically. There was no sense of what Joe stood for, what Momentum particularly objected to, and why they had clashed. Just an unbelievable sexual tension between the two principals. The outing of Joe, too, was a ridiculously old-fashioned tangent that simply would not be an issue in the modern Labour Party. So much so that it felt like metropolitan sneering at Joe’s northern roots more than an exploration of his politics.
For someone who has spent his life in politics, McManus doesn’t seem to like politicians enough to explore them well or properly. As a political consultant, he can’t have done his own livelihood much good – not least with the ridiculous unnecessary insertion of a consultant so one dimensional it was insulting.
If this play had a strong core, it could get away with its lack of realism. If this play had better explored its themes, it could get away with the poorly written caricatures. As it was, this was not just a missed opportunity but a seriously disappointing one.