Writer: Michael McManus
Director: Jolley Gosnold
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
The world of politics is not often sexy enough for the stage, although James Graham’s This House was a recent exception. Full of intrigue, This House looked back to the Labour Government of the 1970s, but hearteningly An Honourable Man, opening at the White Bear Theatre, speaks directly to the politics of today. It couldn’t be more current.
Set in the post-Brexit Britain of 2020, Michael McManus’s play sees its titular character, Joe Newman, form a new political party to challenge the Tory/Labour dominance. Ousted by Momentum, left-wingers in the Labour Party, Newman stands as an independent candidate, and to his surprise, he wins the by-election. To voters he seems like a breath of fresh air. To many, he talks sense, rather than spin.
His journey from an independent to the leader of a new party, PPM (Popular People’s Movement) is excitingly played, especially when we see his policies veer dramatically to the right. He promises he will be strict on immigration in order to bring the British people together. In many ways his initial policies are very similar to those presented by the Leave Campaign, but through the influence of his team, Newman’s eventual stance would make even Boris Johnson blush.
This should all be very thrilling, but the drama is rather muffled by the examination of Newman’s personal life. He is gay, but isn’t quite out. Despite the recent gains in gay liberation, Newman isn’t confident enough to openly declare his sexuality; indeed, he seems a very old-fashioned gay man, positioned still in the 1970s. His best friend, out-of-work actress Liz, is what we would have called a ‘fag-hag’ in pre-PC days, and she also seems out-of joint in this otherwise modern play. Newman’s liaisons with his male party activists, both young men with daddy issues, also don’t quite ring true.
Timothy Harker, so good in the dark Consumables at the Vaults this year, is excellent as Newman, perhaps an innocent caught up in cynical electioneering or perhaps a ruthless careerist, he represents an older England: despite his name he never is the new man. This nostalgia for the 1970s also leads to lots of double entendres and smutty jokes, usually made by Newman’s assistant Sam, played with commitment and brio by Max Keeble. Although a little thinly drawn, Liz in the hands of Dee Sadler is believable as the play’s moral compass.
The other roles are not quite as strong: Lisa Bowerman and Annie Tyson do their best as members of Newman’s team, but writer McManus’s Westminster is very much an arena for the men. Likewise, Thomas Mahy tries as hard as he can as Momentum member Josh, but this shadowy character could be excised from the play completely he brings so little to the table.
The relentless humour is wearing, especially as it hampers otherwise enlightening discussions on why Britain voted to leave the EU. This play about politics needs more politics if it is to be really successful. At the moment An Honourable Manis still sat on the sitcom couch, but with a little more campaigning it could be presiding on the green leather of the House of Commons.
Runs until 8 December 2018 | Image: Lisa Bowerman and Claude Baskind