2021 BRITAIN IN A STATELY STORMY NUTSHELL
Just what we needed, I thought! A good old state-of-the-nation black comedy with a semi-derelict Manor in a howling storm, the sea wall about to breach and motley strangers staggering in for shelter. Very British. Even more so since their reluctant hostess is a titled chatelaine bewailing the uninsured ruin of the “wedding barn” which was going to pay off the debts, while her more level-headed daughter points out that it wouldn’t have done anyway. Oh, and soon there’s a corpse on the kitchen table.
So sit back, eat a sneaky Malteser, enjoy. Relish the theatricality, from ten vigorous performances to a glorious set by Lez Brotherston who has exploded the key elements of stately-homeliness into crooked slabs under a wild sky: stained-glass windows, a vast staircase, a grand stone fireplace and a neatly sketched kitchen complete with Aga and corpse.
It’s no Ayckbourn though: Moira Buffini is attempting something more toughly topical: environmental disaster, a far-right upsurge, interracial unease, feminism. This does mean that it’s a bit of a muddle, perhaps partly due to her characteristic glee in the absurdity of the ten characters. On the other hand, that lack of an earnest one-note direction makes it engrossing, often very funny, sympathetic. Nancy Carroll is Diana, once a ’60s model who fell for a rising rock star, Pete (Owen McDonnell). Now only their daughter Isis likes him and he is off his head on magic mushrooms, brandishing a WW2 Lee Enfield and lurching into druggy mysticism about creating art in the storm. Until he falls downstairs.
Cue sudden wet visitors: a neat 57-Varieties of Brits. A stranded vicar (David Hargreaves, master of innocent deadpan sweetness).has brought along the Ripleys: Michele Austin as a black single mother, an A & E nurse-practitioner attempting a quiet weekend in the country with a furious teenage daughter (Shaniqua Okwok, bare-tummied and wailing for WiFi). Next come moody Ted and his sidekick Anton, reporting that their blind companion is still stuck in the flooded car; to complete the fun, big hopeless Perry (Edward Judge, a master of hapless lovable comedy) demands his meds from his waterlogged caravan. “I’ve got blood pressure. And issues. And diabetes. And joints”. He is pleased to meet Ted (Shaun Evans) because, like £5 millionsworth of crowdfunding fans, Perry reads Ted’s “Albion” campaign website. It’s all about restoring Britain to a land of strong men, warlike knights, empire, submissive women who are nonetheless noble “shieldmaidens” and lesser races kept in their place under strong authority.
It rapidly transpires that this fascist ideology stems from his lover, the blind academic, Ruth, who is brought in from the car with an unaccountable wound. The comedy as she is tended with teeth-gritted professionalism by Nurse Ripley is beautifully handled, as is Ripley’s attempt to persuade her that as well as being a mad fascist she is an abused woman. Indeed all the social nuances, rows and mutual dislikes are deftly done, with some great laughs. There are some overblown conversations about Buffini’s big basketful of issues, but great moments too: as when Diana insouciantly goes to bed like any bored posh hostess, while in blankets round the fire everyone else responds to an uncomfortable night with degrees of resignation, self pity, selfishness, phlegm, or in Ted’s case a sudden ambition to make the manor Albion HQ .
He tempts the more vulnerable to his cause with the usual Mosleyish flapdoodle about strength and orderly joy, and gets some distance for a while with Diana as a “man of action”. But he’s not quite convincing: Shaun Evans does his best but the character only comes together very late on, when he moves from pound-shop Mephistopheles to panicking weasel. Never mind: events keep coming, up to a quite intense moment of temptation and decision and a proper apocalypse. Which, frankly, is a bit annoying because if ever a play needed a third act (“The following day”), it is this.
But the very fact that I wanted more is evidence that I was enjoying it. Carroll’s Diana is perfect, Edward Judge blissfully funny in his moment of shoulders-back pride as one of the new “knights of Albion’, Shaniqua Okwok as the nurse’s daughter a powerhouse of youthful fury to watch. They are all cast to a hair, though Evans not quite as fascinating as he should be, and Buffini is honourably evoking our age of cracking social bonds and baffled extremism. That the gift of truth might reside in a drugged-up waster having a vision of time-and-space warps is one possible conclusion. Another is that wannabe fascist overlords become helpless cowering weasels in the face of love, solidarity, and a damn decent A&E nurse.
It is in slight defiance that I give it the fourth mouse, because I had a great time.
Box office national theatre.org.Uk to 1 Jan