Writer: Howard Brenton
Director: Josh Roche
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
We are currently amid a London housing crisis so there’s no better time to revive Howard Brenton’s 1973 play Magnificence, currently showing at the Finborough Theatre. There are plenty of parallels between the situation 40 years ago and today, which this new show exploits, and while London is still full of empty homes, they’re more likely to top of the range penthouses owned by Russian billionaires than derelict terraces occupied by squatters and tramps.
To make a political protest a group of leftist 20-somethings move into an empty house on a residential street to draw attention to social injustice. But the group is divided between those wanting to draw attention to the cause just by being there and those who think proper community engagement is the only way to affect change. As the years pass, the group changes and former leader Jed becomes more radicalised with a dangerous plan that throws him into the path of a Tory Cabinet Minister.
Brenton’s play had illustrious beginnings, opening at the Royal Court directed by Max Stafford-Clark and starring Pete Postlethwaite and Michael Kitchen, but hasn’t been professionally produced in London for 40 years, and it is easy to see why in this somewhat meandering revival. The first half is only a couple of scenes showing the group moving in, having a few arguments about banners and then suddenly 10 weeks has passed and the bailiffs are at the door, so we never get time to really know the characters or really understand what it is they are protesting about.
The opening to Part 2 throws us off the scent completely with a scene set in Cambridge between a dying don and a well-known politician discussing life and death, which seems to come from an entirely different play. It is only later that the two strands come together but, in Josh Roche’s production, they are not comfortably merged. The early chaos of the squat is never allowed to settle and, with so much action happening constantly among the five protestors, some of the meaning is lost in the hubbub.
By the interval, only the two women are clearly drawn – largely through a veiled bitterness towards each other – which Eva Jane Willis as the impassioned by steadfastly middle-class Veronica and Daisy Hughes as the pregnant Mary play convincingly and the audience clearly sees the different paths for women as workers or mothers opening up in the 70s. Yet the men, who become so integral to the plot in Part 2, are little more than background noise and it’s difficult to understand their purpose.
More successful is the first section with the politician in Cambridge, which is a brilliantly comic scene in which Tim Faulkner as Minister “Alice” and Hayward B. Morse as Babs give an edge of sadness as the elder man contemplates his last days. The scene demands they speak their thoughts aloud as well as having direct dialogue with each other, which Faulkner and Morse make distinct while contrasting the smooth and confident politico with the fading, slightly eccentric academic. Joe Price’s lighting gives an almost poetic quality to the punting scene, which adds considerably to the tone.
But as events come to a head and the two worlds collide, the weakness of the section in the squat makes it much harder to understand and sympathise with what follows. Joel Gillman’s Jed is full of rage and despair as he tries to find drastic means to gain notoriety for his cause, but the audience is never quite on his side and instead is dangerously close to supporting the Tory politician instead.
Brenton’s play is a highly politicised one and Philip Lindley’s squat design, which is onstage throughout, appropriately represents the shabby state of housing support and the effect this short period of occupation had on the characters. Yet Roche’s production is never on fire, instead feeling like a collection of loosely assembled scenes that splutters to a close. This version of Magnificence is not yet magnificent; it needs a bit more clarity and passion to be inspiring. Those Russian billionaires probably don’t need to worry about copycat squatters just yet.
Runs until 19 November 2016 | Image: Tegid Cartwright