It’s not difficult to see why the Finborough has programmed a revival of Howard Brenton’s Magnificence. Written in 1973 during a time of financial crisis, IRA terrorism, and an emergent far-left radicalism, the echoes that permeate Brenton’s play resonate loudly 2016. But for all its political relevance, Magnificence also contains much that has lost its sting. What emerges from Josh Roche’s solid production is a dry, somewhat unreachable comment on the eternal factionalism of the British left. And not much else.
This is what Michael Billington loves to call a ‘state-of-the-nation’ play. Brenton subtly ladles a great swathe of England onto the stage, poking and prodding his characters with wit and dramatic flair. Jed (Joel Gillman) is the de facto leader of a five-strong group of flare-wearing, side-burned radicals who occupy an abandoned house in protest against the government’s handling of a housing crisis and, well, everything else. Over time, relations in the occupation begin to collapse and when the police finally kick the door down and haul Jed off to prison, battle lines are drawn where once there were none. Meanwhile, in a punt in Cambridge, an ailing Tory grandee (Hayward B Morse) bores his young protégé (Tim Faulkner) with hazy memories and bitter regrets of his days in the cabinet.
These adjacent storylines don’t exactly develop or interlink. They proceed in snapshots, each one a delightfully crafted conversation, before colliding in a sublimely droll final scene. Brenton drops in two dryly humorous cameos from an over-educated policeman (the enjoyably versatile Faulkner again) and a darkly bitter bailiff (Chris Porter). As a result, it’s difficult to invest in individual characters, but impossible not to appreciate Brenton’s panoramic scope. It’s not emotionally involving, but it’s impressive.
Perhaps Magnificence is more affecting for people that lived through the seventies, that remember Ted Heath’s premiership, and that reminisce about the time they could wear bandanas and Che Guevara t-shirts and not look ridiculous. But for theatre-goers below the age of fifty, there’s not a lot of sustenance beyond the jokes and the political observations. And when the small thrill of linking the deteriorating unity of the occupiers with the deteriorated unity of Corbyn’s Labour has worn off, the ill-defined characters and the staccato, underdeveloped plot just aren’t enough.
Which is not to criticise Roche’s production. His direction is imaginative and playful and, together with designer Phil Lindley, he manages to transport the intimate space from a shabby London squat, to the banks of the river Cam, and beyond. His cast are adept and there are particularly stylish performances from Faulkner, Porter, and Morse. No, the tepidity of this revival stems not from the creative team but from Brenton’s play, which time has not looked kindly upon, despite its superficial topicality.
Magnificence is playing the Finborough Theatre until November 19.
Photo: Tegid Cartwright