When presenting politicians, dramatists so often create murderous monsters, such as the Underwoods in House of Cards. Or virtuous saints, such as Team Bartlet in Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing. Or else the grotesquery of Armando Iannucci’s The Thick of It. It is really hard to present political characters who are rounded, mostly decent, and above all human, but Emma Burnell has achieved it. James Graham, move over.
In Triggered, Burnell’s second play, which has just finished a sell-out run at the White Bear Theatre in south London’s Kennington, we meet some political humans. There’s June Wright, played by Carrie Cohen, a bluff, Northern, no-nonsense Labour Party apparatchik whose command of the Labour rule book is total.
The Labour left is represented by Jim Marr, played by Michael Palmer, a placard-waving, picket-line attending, overly earnest sociology lecturer. His antagonist is the ‘Blairite’ Safia Peters, deftly played by Catherine Adams – thoroughly moderate, pragmatic, ambitious, and as it turns out, treacherous.
The show-stealing protagonist is Antonia Beamish’s Sally Finch, the local Labour MP subject to the arcane process known as a ‘trigger ballot’, whereby a Labour MP must submit to a vote of local party members before being allowed to stand as a candidate again.
Beamish conveys brilliantly the torture of a hard-working MP, for whom the job is all-consuming, being subject to the capriciousness of a few dozen Labour Party members in small meetings. Small meetings, small minds. Because of some minor thought-crime, Sally Finch falls foul of the comrades, and by a whisker loses her job, her livelihood, and her reason to get up in the mornings.
Emma Burnell’s insider knowledge of the Labour Party allows her to faithfully depict politics behind the scenes, which most writers seem to get wrong. No wonder Polly Toynbee, Michael Crick, and a slew of real-life MPs and political cognoscenti who saw the play commended its accuracy. But Burnell’s flair for writing three-dimensional characters means we see the pity of politics, not just the process. Like the mantra of a Mafia hitman, the characters tell each other ‘it’s nothing personal’ but how can it not be?
Towards the finale the characters break into song, but each choses a different tune. For lefty Jim it’s the Internationale, for Old Labour loyalist June it’s the Red Flag, for New Labour Finch it’s the Blairite anthem Things Can Only Better. The resulting noisy, discordant cacophony creates the perfect metaphor for a political party at war. But then, they all start to sing from the same song sheet, which is Burnell’s main theme. The rousing, harmonious chorus of the Red Flag sung by all four characters represents the play-write’s own desire for unity. Harder said than done – as the sanguine Sally Finch says following her defenestration ‘I already knew who hated me in the Labour Party. That’s why we call it a family’.
The play lasts around an hour without interval, with a stripped-back set, and few props aside from a red rosette and plates of biscuits (passed amongst the audience). The focus is on the writing, brilliantly brought to life by the ensemble, the raw emotion, and the hubristic conclusion. Triggered would make a powerful TV play, or a BBC Radio 4 drama: commissioning editors take note. With real dramatic skill, aided by a well-chosen quartet of actors, Burnell brings us politics with a human face, human weakness, and a human heart.