State of the nation satire more of a clumsy sitcom
Lyttelton theatre, London
Moira Buffini’s new play tries to be everything at once. A state-ofthe-nation satire, of sorts, it is also a haunted house story with drawingroom farce, country house murder mystery and dystopian disaster movie optics thrown in.
It wavers in an uncertain space between all these forms before spiralling into unconvincing storytelling and clumsy comedy.
The manor house setting, as in Mike Bartlett’s far more potent Albion, represents a bygone imperial England. When a village is hit by flooding, the bursting of the riverbanks brings saints and sinners to the doors of Burnt Marple.
This is the house owned – in one of the play’s more dated jokes – by upper-class “Lady Diana” (Nancy Carroll). Her daughter, Isis (Liadán Dunlea), is named after the ancient goddess, though there is an extremist, in Ted (Shaun Evans), the head of a far-right group named Albion, who is swept in by the storm.
Quickly – too quickly – he converts another house guest to his cause and cavorts – again, unconvincingly – with Diana. Carroll and Evans have no chemistry between them and Evans lacks the dark charisma to pull off his Svengali-like character.
Although Ted’s racism and misogyny are clearly being parodied, they feel crass and gratuitous when combined with the play’s ineffective comedy. In one scene he incites a character to spit out the P-word, which elicits some nervous sniggers from the auditorium and, whatever its objective, sounds especially distasteful in the light of Azeem Rafiq’s Yorkshire cricket testimony.
Despite the gravity of the play’s themes, it has a prevailingly saggy sitcom vibe, from the vision of the village vicar, Reverend Fiske (David Hargreaves), parading in a fluffy pink jumper and boxer shorts, to unfunny fat jokes at the expense of working-class Perry (Edward Judge), who, we are told, lives in a caravan and got the sack from Sainsbury’s. More seriousminded subject matter is wedged in awkwardly, from a climate warning to limp jabs against the wealthy 1% and “hormonal white men”.
Out of nowhere, there is a lesbian kiss that seems to aspire to be radical in this bland middle England landscape. Yet the drama has a well worn, ersatz tone which is far from edgy. An initially dungaree-clad Diana and her husband, Pete (Owen McDonnell), look as if they are in a dissolute version of The Good Life, no less twee for the magic mushrooms Pete guzzles. A body is later laid out on the kitchen table on one side of the stage, a Faulkneresque touch that does not go anywhere beyond another implausible plot turn.
Lez Brotherston’s set is a wonky interior, with higgledy fireplace, chandelier and a blast of stormy sky around it, and resembles a Roald Dahl storybook. It is eyecatching but feels vast, and under the direction of the playwright’s sister, Fiona Buffini, actors inhabit its various corners at once, leaving our focus divided. It is topped off with unconvincing performances all round. Maybe the actors have too little characterisation to work with. Maybe they are not convinced by the jokes either. Either way, we do not care enough about these people.
In the play’s closing moments, the flood waters sweep into the house in a deluge of visual effects that are nicely created by Nina Dunn’s projections and John Clark’s lighting, but it is accompanied by a wave of relief that it is all finally ending.
Manor’s many failings might have been forgiven if the comedy was just sharper, funnier, at least a few degrees more dangerous. But even as a light-hearted Christmas show, this feels little short of a turkey.
At the National Theatre’s Lyttelton theatre, London, until 1 January