A Modest Little Man – Bread and Roses, London

Writer: Francis Beckett

Director:  Owain Rose

Reviewer:  Richard Maguire

In today’s political climate it seems almost impossible that Britain was once, albeit briefly, a socialist state. This play about the Labour Government of the postwar 1940s serves as a stark reminder of the utopian dreams this country once had.

The Second World War had thrown together all echelons of British society, and in 1945 a move towards a fairer society was heralded in the Labour Party’s surprise victory over Churchill in the general election. A good deal of Labour’s success was down to Clement Attlee, the modest little man in the title of the new play by Francis Beckett.

Roger Rose plays Attlee very well; likeable but distant, and his monosyllabic reticence that frustrates his colleagues is played for laughs here. We meet Attlee on the eve of his victory, shuffling papers or fiddling with his pipe, as he prepares for his first meeting with the King. Attlee’s wife Violet narrates the unfolding events and provides snatches of backstory of Attlee’s previous life in the army.

Violet is the perfect counterpart to Attlee, and in Lynne O’Sullivan’s very capable hands, she is gossipy, and arch, letting the audience know that she is cleverer than she appears to others. Indeed, so good are the performances of Rose and O’Sullivan as husband and wife, A Modest Little Man should be a two-hander with the couple taking on the other roles that the play demands.

There are perhaps too many characters in a play that lasts only an hour. Some characters could easily be excised, as they bring nothing to the story. For instance, we only glimpse the new Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, played here by Clive Greenwood as a working-class man struggling in a political world. Greenwood also plays Nye Bevan, the politician who fought hard to introduce the National Health System. However, Greenwood’s best role is of King George VI, giving him just the shadow of a stutter.

Other characters quickly outstay their welcome, especially that of Rose, who, without a surname, could be an invention by Beckett to bring some symmetry to the story. But it’s hard to know what this play is about. It has no real structure, and it lacks a narrative drive. Sometimes the story seems to be about how Attlee controls his maverick ministers, and sometimes it appears to be about the NHS. At one point the story hinges on Nye Bevan’s dinner jacket.

Played on a bare stage, Owain Rose’s direction is a little too fussy with chairs and tables moved here and there to differentiate the series of short scenes that make up this play. The actors are always exiting and entering when they could, at times, remain on stage.

While Beckett is sure to show how the Conservative Party and the right-wing press labelled Attlee’s party as akin to the Gestapo and the plans for the NHS as notions based on Nazism, the most interesting part of the play is the relationship between the Attlees. He would write poetry, and at night would read aloud Pride and Prejudice to his wife. It’s hard to imagine Theresa May reading Austen to Mr May!

Runs until 26 January 2019 | Image: Contributed

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One Comment

  1. Labour’s 1945 election victory may have been a surprise in the U.S., but was no surprise in the UK where they had been ahead in the polls for months.

    The establishment of the NHS and the Welfare State were wartime coalition policies, for the end of hostilities, agreed across parties. The NHS Act 1946 was based on the coalitions 1944 white paper ‘A National Health Service’.

    Churchill’s stupid gestapo remark was re Labour’s industrial policy. (With Defence and Social Policy agreed, the 1945 election was fought over ownership of industry.) It was a former secretary of the BMA who claimed that the NHS was akin to Nazism.

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