An Honourable Man at White Bear Theatre
An Honourable Man
If you are a writer of political dramas, you can do one of two things. You can take a broad-brush approach, eschewing detail and making grand points about totalitarianism or dictatorship or whatever, without bothering much about details of parliamentary procedure or campaign finances. The idea is that the terrible things that unfold in the drama could happen anywhere. Shakespeare does this in Julius Caesar, to great effect; his Rome could be any city, in any country, in any period. Alternatively, you can go for authenticity and aim to make the play as realistic as possible, using intimate detail to prove your credentials as a purveyor of realism. The idea is that whatever happens in the drama could – and may well – happen right here, right now. Debut playwright Michael McManus sets out to do the latter in An Honourable Man.
Set in a near post-Brexit future, a moderate Labour MP, hounded out by his local constituency branch of Momentum (the Corbyn-supporting grass roots campaign group), wins a by-election standing as an independent, inspires a bunch of other MPs to resign their own party whips and coalesce around him, forms a new populist party, becomes a swivel-eyed fascist more or less overnight, manages somehow to engineer a general election, leads the new party to heady heights in opinion polls by standing on a hard-line anti-immigration platform, then starts to feel a bit bad about being so nasty, and ends up… well, I’ll not spoil the ending just in case, after reading this, any of you still want to watch it. But that’s the basic premise.
The play aims to cause us to think, with some trepidation, about the direction in which contemporary politics is heading. In the era of Brexit and Trump, with hard-line anti-immigrant populism on the rise in Europe, the play tries to make us consider the perils of the currently highly polarised British political discourse. But it completely fails in its bid to be taken seriously because the details it deploys – in order to prove its realism credentials – are themselves wholly unrealistic.
First, the protagonist, Joe Newman MP (Timothy Harker), is deselected by his constituency Labour party following a campaign against him by Momentum. In protest at this, he resigns from Parliament triggering a by-election in which he stands as an independent and defeats the replacement Labour candidate favoured by Momentum. But why was he deselected in the middle of a Parliament, long before a general election was due? We’re given no explanation. And why did he choose to resign and fight a by-election immediately, rather than see out the Parliament and then stand as an independent? No idea. Second, the notion that dozens of sitting MPs would simply abandon their existing parties – on both sides of the House of Commons – in order to sign up to a new, immigrant-bashing populist party that cobbles together wholly incompatible policies from left and right ends of the traditional political spectrum that may or may not succeed in (a) forcing a general election, and (b) winning it, is beyond unlikely under the British parliamentary system. Sure, there are a few rebels here and there. (Currently, of course, there are far more obvious rebels in the Conservative party than in Labour, in the form of the hard Brexit-favouring European Research Group – and even they can’t find the numbers to try to topple Theresa May.) But these rebels are very much in the minority in both major parties and there’s no effort made to give a plausible explanation as to why the make-up of these parties might have changed quite so radically in a future not very far away from the present day. Third, the ending – which I won’t give away – is also hugely unlikely, given the rollercoaster ride that Newman embarks on over the weeks that elapse during the play.
It’s no secret that writer McManus is a former Conservative party parliamentary candidate who has worked in and around Westminster for, in his own words, “far too long”. And so the starting premise of his play – that all the bad stuff that happens throughout it is, at base, Momentum’s fault – just looks nakedly partisan. An opportunity to explore arguably the most interesting political difference between the UK and much of the rest of Europe – that our biggest populist movement, Momentum, is a radical left wing group rather than a far right one – goes begging. Thus, the play offers a simplistic and, frankly, ludicrous message: Lefties beware! In trying to promote social justice, you might cause a formerly moderate centre-leftist to turn into a fascist monster and take over the country! Yeah, right.
So as a plot, An Honourable Man simply doesn’t work. Nor, I’m afraid, does it work as a script. The dialogue is clunky and clichéd. Its characters are incoherent – flickering like a faulty strobe light between arguing vehemently with one another one minute and having a cuddle and a joke on the sofa the next. And whilst some characters are written with a strong emphasis on realistic attributes, others are deliberate caricatures. Newman, for instance, is a white, middle-aged, Cambridge-educated politician who is gay (though not “out” publicly); he’s not an original character, but one at least meant to be taken seriously. But the PR consultant who appears for a single scene of completely out-of-kilter-with-everything-else comic relief is a caricature of vapid jargonism whose bonkers nonsense-spouting jars like someone inserting a scene from Yes, Minister into House of Cards. (That’s unfair on Yes, Minister, which is superbly scripted. But it’s the best simile I’ve got.)
The pacing of the play is all wrong. The first half gets by at a reasonable lick, but the second – at nearly half an hour longer than the first – drags terribly. It also becomes very bitty in Act 2, with scenes that vary enormously in length and with far too much of the action unfolding through pre-filmed news channel inserts played on a TV in the corner. This breaks up the flow of the play and induces restlessness in the audience. Did we come for a play or for one of those lessons we used to have a primary school where we just watched a video for an hour? The cameos in these scenes made by some vaguely notable political semi-celebrities (including news anchor Shaun Ley, Ken Clarke MP and radio stalwart James Naughtie) might amuse the hardcore political geeks in the room. But they’re ultimately no more than gimmicks that surely consumed time that would have been better spent addressing all the other things that are wrong here.
I’d love to say that the acting, or the direction, or the staging saved it. It’s fair to say that Max Keeble and Thomas Mahy, as Sam and Josh respectively, were engaging and injected some much-needed energy. I’d like to see them again in something else. But they couldn’t save this. The whole cast were flogging a dead horse for 150 minutes and it can’t have been fun.
There’s certainly a place in today’s climate for drama that engages realistically with the impact of radical populism on formerly liberal democracies. In fact, on that note, I recommend getting hold of the box set of the fantastic Swedish political thriller Blue Eyes, which does everything that An Honourable Man wanted to do but actually succeeds in being plausible and in constructing something you’d enjoy watching. An Honourable Man doesn’t. Don’t bother.
Review by Daniel Bennett.
An Honourable Man is on at White Bear Theatre until 8th December. Visit the theatre’s website to find out more.
If you liked this review you might also like Musical Theatre Musings review of Brexit (the play!)