Following Clement Attlee from his unexpectedly successful election campaign in 1945, to his creation of the welfare state in 1948, Francis Beckett’s A Modest Little Man is supposed to be a light-hearted tribute to the laconic, understated labour Prime Minister. Unfortunately, it turned out to be the kind of celebration in which most of the guests failed to show up and those that did forgot to bring the party poppers or even those whimsically colourful paper hats.
Initially, the play’s premise seems to offer an interesting and even timely commentary on our own political geography. Attlee (Roger Rose) is characterised as an unassuming socialist who is routinely subject to widespread personal and political mockery and disdain, even from those within his own party. He is a politician who doesn’t adhere to the rules of the parliamentary game. Yet, through his composed self-conviction, he is able to surmount these obstacles and inaugurate a profound change in British society which we still regard as central to our besieged and somewhat divided national identity. There’s even a discussion of fake news. Whatever you think of Jeremy Corbyn, the parallels are there to be drawn.
Except that A Modest Little Man seems to do everything possible to alienate a modern audience. At first, the play introduces the juxtaposition of the polite Attlee and his more animated, unscrupulous colleagues to good comic effect. But an increasing over-reliance on this contrast leaves the politicians feeling largely one-dimensional, with the mild Attlee appearing as a beacon of almost omnipotent nobility amongst his shamelessly scheming cabinet. It soon descends into nostalgia for an era when, apparently, successfully leading the country through turbulent times only required a general disinterest in what others have to say and occasional cricket analogies. If this ever worked in the past (and I’m sceptical), it definitely doesn’t anymore. Just ask Theresa May.
Of course, the play is a comedy and it does provide a scattering of entertaining moments, most notably through Clive Greenwood’s striking performances of the blistering Nye Bevan and the stuttering King George, amongst others. Bevan’s moral dilemma over the traditional attire expected of cabinet members – “I’m meant to resign over a dinner jacket?” – is a particular highlight. Sadly the majority of the jokes are far less witty and insightful, relying heavily on repetitive caricatures. This is especially evident in the handful of women included in the script, whose main purpose appears to be to gossip to/about their politician husbands.
On top of this, too many individual performances, with the exceptions of Greenwood and Rose, were largely uninspiring, and too many lines were forgotten often leaving a disjointed feel to the scenes. In the final evaluation, it is a play that promises much but gets a little lost between political commentary and a comedy of manners, and ends up not quite being either. Like its protagonist, A Modest Little Man rarely has much to say. But unlike Attlee himself, it is unlikely to leave any great lasting impact.
A Modest Little Man is playing until 26 January. For more information and tickets, visit the Bread and Roses Theatre website.