Labour rebels, a bereaved mother of a blown-up soldier and a disconnected upper middle class couple all feature in the first half of Out of Joint’s A View From Islington North. In the latter half, sexism in the Conservative party and a fictional encounter between Theresa May, George Osborne and Russia’s Ayn Rand take to the stage. Director Max Stafford-Clark is bringing political satire into the limelight with his latest project – a series of five short plays by Caryl Churchill, David Hare, Mark Ravenhill, Alistair Beaton and Stella Feehily that voice a broad assortment of today’s political contentions.
First up is Ravenhill’s The Mother which, first performed at the Royal Court in 2008, is the oldest of the evening’s offerings. Mrs Morrison (Sarah Alexander) receives the visit she’s been dreading from Major Dawlish (Jane Wymark) and Private Crawford (Joseph Prowen) who inform her of her son’s death at war. Ravenhill’s play is just as important today as when it opened, and this is poignantly reinstated as Mrs Morrison comments on the lack of news reporting on the war: “once one kid’s been blown up it’s all the same”, she says. Through its central character – a working-class mother – Ravenhill’s play gives a voice to those who are grieving, but in danger of being forgotten as the country moves on.
With a quick change of costume, Sarah Alexander returns to the stage for Churchill’s Tickets Are Now On Sale – the shortest of the series, which is fuelled by clever wordplay – as a juxtaposition of her former character. Now incredibly posh and politically removed, she and her partner (Steve John Shepherd) interact in clichéd small talk. They relive a short and humorous transaction that never gets to the bottom of what really is the matter, as they drop real world issues into breezy conversation.
Next, Ravenhill’s soldiers are back but as Labour party rebels in Alistair Beaton’s contemporary and highly funny play The Accidental Leader, which satirises the struggles politicians face trying to keep their secrets in the technological age. Beaton’s play sees Nina (Sarah Alexander), a member of grassroots movement Impetus (itself a take on Labour’s Momentum group) foil a rebellious backbencher, Jim (Bruce Alexander), in his attempts to rally party members against Jeremy Corbyn following his election as party leader. Despite Jim’s efforts to destroy typed-up records of communications, Nina farcically reveals how she managed to trace the rebels through spotting the location of younger party member Ollie (Prowen) on Tinder. The Corbyn gags and debate on the airstrikes over Syria give the play a current feeling, whilst the phone calls to the trio from the press and the Leader’s Office appropriately heighten the tension on stage and hysteria in the auditorium.
David Hare’s Ayn Rand Takes a Stand focuses on an imaginary encounter, in which Ayn Rand (Ann Mitchell) speaks fervently about her love of the free market with George Osborne (Shepherd), and later with a less convinced Theresa May (Wymark). Mitchell warms our hearts with her impassioned support for immigration, and Wymark flaunts her diverse characterisation skills in her third role of the evening as the home secretary; credit here to Richard Mawbey’s wigs for making both actresses look authentic in these high-profile roles. There are witty stabs at the Tory government; during a discussion on free healthcare, Rand remarks: “you have that in your country?” to which Osborne replies: “we used to”, receiving wary chuckles from the audience. In one brilliant moment, Osborne expresses his love of the free market whilst simultaneously locking May in the room. Shepherd moulds himself into the part of Osborne: with one meaningful stare at the audience, he makes us howl when the subject of him becoming party leader is raised.
The collection ends with Stella Feehily’s How to Get Ahead in Politics which, through fictional characters, probes satirically at sexism within the conservative party. Tim Shortall’s set design takes on a stylish Wes Anderson-esque appearance here, featuring warm wooden furniture dotted with signature green items including a desk light, an assortment of folders and a plush green chair. Bruce Alexander falters on some lines in the fast-paced script, but this does not detract from Feehily’s strong piece, including witty one-liners liners such as: “there’s no such thing as a safe Lib Dem seat”.
The title, A View From Islington North, acknowledges both Corbyn’s political seat and the fact that Islington North has been the home of Out of Joint theatre for the last 20 years. Stafford-Clark’s work is both an excellent challenge and showcase for the six actors who, throughout the night, adopt sometimes drastically different characters. Ending with an appropriately slanderous song, mocking our two-party political system, the final line: “what’s the point of winning at any cost, if everything remains the same?” hits the nail on the head.
A View From Islington North is playing at the Arts Theatre until 2 July. For more information and tickets, see the Arts Theatre website. Photo: Robert Workman