Writer: Moira Buffini
Director: Fiona Buffini
A nationalist group, climate change, a rundown country house, a varied collection of bedraggled strangers and a missing body unhappily converge in Moira Buffini’s new play Manor which opens at the Lyttleton Theatre after a pandemic delay. This muddled drama doesn’t know where to pitch itself as it tries to be all things to all people in a multistranded approach that can’t quite bring together its themes of class, history and identity politics.
During a violent storm, lady of the manor, Diana Stuckley sends her rock star husband Pete tumbling down the stairs, and soon after several groups of people arrive seeking shelter. As the weather calms, the cold light of day brings further dangers as members of far-right group Albion are identified in the house and when Pete’s body disappears they start to manipulate events.
Buffini’s play begins like a murder mystery as unconnected guests arrive at an atmospheric manor house during an extreme weather event which cuts them off completely from the outside world when phone lines come down and internet connections are severed. But having built this structure, Buffini does nothing with it and, while the play takes place across 24 hours in which the storm continues outside, Manor lacks a time-ticking pressure to drive the story along.
The plot is incredibly sprawling, and what starts as a rather shouty domestic drama into which these strangers inconveniently intrude, becomes a series of group scenes and duologues that sketch out (but never fully realise) a series of character tropes that Buffini doesn’t know how to utilise, ranging from a sweet elderly vicar to a hapless local man down on his luck, some Londoners out of their comfort zone and the central dysfunctional family.
At its best Manor explores the manipulative politics of nationalist groups who weaponise history, Britishness and concepts of birth right to gain traction, preying on the disenfranchisement of their followers. Leader Ted Farrier is well drawn and when his girlfriend Ruth reminds him ‘you decide the narrative and make it into truth’ because ‘truth is the argument that wins’ there is a sharpness to Buffini’s writing that feels lacking in the rest of the story.
Elsewhere, the purpose of Manor feels uncertain, often unconvincing, as character interactions feel hollow. Some of the guests are openly hostile to Diana after she has taken them in, refusing to leave and adopting a surety in her home that seems unlikely. And while Diana herself is never terribly gracious, no one seems to behave quite naturally which confuses the audience, unsure whether this is comedy or drama.
Offensive and racist terminology is used in the context of Albion members and their methodologies which underscore some of Buffini’s points about these groups, but there are several fat-shaming comments which sit outside that perspective included to make other individuals seem equally self-serving. However, this idea is never sufficiently explored so we don’t join the dots between these varying instances of character bigotry.
The difficulty in writing a play about the charisma of far-right leaders is that they tend to have the same allure within the story and Shaun Evans’ Ted is the most interesting and enigmatic character in the piece. The smooth surface that Evans offers to conceal Ted’s misogyny, certainty about his own supremacy and controlling nature bring with them an intensity and danger that charges the atmosphere whenever he is on stage. Hateful though he may be, Evans gives Ted a Pinteresque masculinity that anchors the play.
Michele Austin as bemused London nurse Ripley is the only other character capable of vying for the audience’s attention and her stage presence has a calm authority that becomes the voice of reason. Nancy Carroll’s Diana doesn’t get much beyond yelling or flirting so while Buffini puts her at the centre of the play, using her connection to the house as a driver, Diana has insufficient depth for Carroll to make much of her.
Commissioned and in rehearsal before Covid, Manor has waited a long time for its moment on stage and now doesn’t seem to know what to do with it.
Runs until 1 January 2021