As play, production and performance, this 90 minutes without an interval makes for a concentrated and enjoyable evening.
The play itself is written by the winner of the Writers’ Guild Best Play Award for 2009. Juliet Gilkes Romero is both playwright and journalist and her script illustrates her skills in both activities.
The set consists of furniture constructed (by whichever actor is left alone at previous scene’s end) from cardboard packing cases.
The action of the play arises from conflicts within the Labour Party on the eve of a general election (now there’s a coincidence!) over a heated debate within Labour about whether there should be some all-black shortlists. There have, after all, argue the proponents of such lists, been all women shortlists. Which means, when you come to think of it, that as things stand, black people suffer even worse discrimination than women.
Romero has employed reverse chronological order, a device which has become fairly familiar since Harold Pinter introduced it to British theatre in Betrayal in 1978. The question the audience is asking itself is, therefore, not ‘Where are they going?’ but ‘How did they get to that opening scene?’ Effectively employed, as it is here, the device brings a certain unsentimentalized pathos to the struggles and setbacks that have afflicted the characters we are watching.
The dialogue is snappy, lucid and forceful throughout. Idealistic politicians can get very fierce when riled. The audience is invited, nay, compelled, to become politically aware, historically informed and hilariously (albeit sympathetically) entertained, all at once.
Lotte Wakeham’s direction is sure-footed and effective. The meaning of the drama permeates the action, and the action proceeds without hesitation.
Of the three actors, the most experienced is Andrew Scarborough, who, for those who know about such things, plays Tim Drewe inDownton Abbey. Akemnji Ndifornyen will be known to those who have watched Doctors, Incubus and Leonardo, while Emma Dennis-Edwards has played a waitress on film in Cinderella. I look forward to seeing them all again on stage and, I hope, soon.
By the end of the play we have been given a look into what was going on in Westminster and on the hustings in the John Major years, which is to say, in terms of heroes and villains, the interim between Mrs Thatcher and Mr Blair.
Will there be any all black short lists for Labour Party candidates later this year? Don’t hold your breath.
There is one element in this play that really puzzles me. I have not at the time of writing been able to interpret the title, Upper Cut. Is it a metaphor drawn from boxing, relating to the tendency of the characters to turn at least temporarily against each other as their various successive ambitions are felled by circumstance and by those who are supposed to be their friends and allies? Is there a deliberate echo of ‘upper crust’, relating that concept both to society at large and the Labour Party, of which all three personae are energetically contentious and ambitious members?
Or does it relate to the tragically early death of the great Labour prime minister that never was, John Smith?
I’d be grateful to any reader who works out an answer and enlightens me via the ‘comment’ space at the end of this review. Just try not to be too condescendingly scornful.
- By Juliet Gilkes Romero
- Directed by Lotte Wakeham
- Cast: Emma-Dennis Edwards, Akemnji Ndiforyen and Andrew Scarborough
- Southwark Playhouse, London
- Until 7th February 2015
- Time: 20:00
- Review by Tom Aitken
- 17 January 2015