The Daily Telegraph
Downton shabby: this drama is part panto, part social comment
National’s Lyttleton Theatre, London SE1
As Moira Buffini, writer of hit Netflix film The Dig, rightly asserted in her curtain-raiser piece about her new play in the paper this week, the manor house is a site of special interest right now. With the past of stately homes ever more problematic to the present, they’re fertile ground.
It’s conceivable – and I’d say desirable – that someone writes a topical comedy looking at the current “culture wars” battles surrounding grand old heritage piles and difficult chapters in their history.
Manor isn’t such a play, though. This is not a piece about the National Trust or the like. Buffini’s nightmarish, darkly comic “state of the nation” drama gives a survey slanted not towards the encroachments of progressive politics but the dangers of the far-right.
In an opening of literal and metaphorical ruination, storm clouds hang over a financially beleaguered coastal manor house in which, answering the apparent climate catastrophe outside, domestic turbulence abounds. “The world’s about to be consumed by the system that we live in,” Owen Mcdonnell’s wastrel lord of the manor, lost to magic mushrooms and clinging to memories of a pop career, prophesies, firing pot-shots at mantelpiece ornaments. “You took my youth,” his wife Diana, a splendidly withering Nancy Carroll, snarls, their acrimony shoved into abrupt silence when he tumbles down the stairs dominating Lez Brotherston’s nicely skewed-perspective set.
Into the murky, candlelit scene (with direction by Buffini’s capable sister, Fiona) stagger a motley crew of fugitives – nearby residents and passers-by – from the biblical flood. Most entertaining is the eccentric vicar (David Hargreaves’ Fiske), all benign imperviousness, gathering folk for prayers, offering innocuous pieties. In
‘Endeavour’ star Shaun Evans plays a far-right figure who drips with caricature
contrast to this placatory figure, plus a mother and daughter from Balham, the former an NHS nurse who mucks in with medical help, is the unsavoury character of Ted Farrier, head of a far-right group called Albion.
Before you can say Tommy Robinson, this working-class firebrand is making eyes at a calculatingly receptive Diana – who scents sex and vital funds. Endeavour star Shaun
Evans brings allure and heft to a character that’s dripping with caricature as he bangs on about his Celtic-saxon-roman ancestry and “restoring” the proud ancient nation. On the prowl for recruits, he finds a ready candidate in local lunkhead Perry (Edward Judge) who has lost his supermarket job to self-service scanners. This embodiment of the left-behind is willing to heed Ted’s talk and join his brainwashed band of brothers and Ruth, a blind, supremacist historian (“Britain brought civilisation to the rest of the world” etc).
I can applaud Buffini in abstract for daring us to eavesdrop on a hinterland of unpalatable sentiments (albeit she courts controversy with a bluntly intrusive use of the P-word). Yet, her incidental serrated wit aside, what begins on a note of promising peculiarity dwindles into an editorialising ding-dong between rival emissaries of traditionalist and multicultural Britain.
It is critical that we interrogate racism and the far-right, but they need sophisticated handling if we are to move beyond obvious truths. The play fails to do this, and feels like an odd halfway house, somewhere between entertainment and socio-political evaluation. Fine for the panto season, but given Buffini’s excellence – the waspish Dinner, which went from the NT to the West End in 2003; and The Dig – it’s a soggy disappointment.