Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: The Charming Man, Theatre 503

Review: The Charming Man, Theatre 503

Published on Culture Wars, 25.10.2010

To be frank, it’s astounding that The Charming Man made it through the Theatre 503’s literary department in its current shape. Unwieldy, baggy and overlong, Gabriel Bisset-Smith’s play scuppers its satirical ambitions with a naivety that goes entirely unchecked. It makes Tim Roseman and Paul Robinson’s recent Guardian blog look all the more ill-considered.

Like criticism, satire need not offer a credible alternative. That is the job of the opposition. What it must do is diagnose the problems with the system and expose them as such. Good political satire is therefore entirely reliant on a sound understanding of the mechanics of contemporary politics. Bisset-Smith might manage the identification of its failings, but he cannot couch them in a credible world. Rather than let punches emerge from the politics, Bisset-Smith shapes the system according to the needs of his satire. As a result, despite being faced with the easiest political target this century, The Charming Man ends up flapping loosely and limply before simply wearing itself out.

More’s the pity, because Bisset-Smith has found a robust starting point: the conflict between honest, heartfelt ideology and populism needed in order to achieve power. It is the dilemma so obviously personified by the Lib-Dems during the last election and, though the play ostensibly concerns the Green party, one suspects that Nick Clegg is Bisset-Smith’s primary foil.

Having piped up at an open meeting to harp on about the solution that youth centres offer, Darren Lloyd (Syrus Lowe) finds himself fast-tracked through the ranks of the Green Party. Before long, he’s at its helm, which – given that he’s both gay and black – throws up a heap of concerns about the electorate’s level of tolerance. A quick spin of sexuality later, Darren finds himself hitched and hurtling towards number 10.

With his bitterest rival, oleaginous old-timer Marcus, heading up the newly-titled Neo Lib Dems, after his victory in a televised ice-dancing competition, Lloyd is pitched in a final televised debate that culminates in a rebuttal of spin and a reclamation of pride.

But Bisset-Smith’s presents a universe so alternate that he can’t really land punches on our political spectrum. How convenient, for example, that the Conservatives and Labour seem to have dropped out of existence? Or that his Paxman-equivalent should kick proceedings off with a question as panderingly easy as “Why should your party be in power?” And what opposition leader calls a radio stations phone-in to personally attack his opposite number?

Bisset-Smith’s biggest mistake, however, is the stupidity of his characters. Does he really expect us to accept this array of morons as educated politicians? Good satire – no, functioning satire – crafts its stupidity intelligently, not simply as default. Stupid decisions are made by intelligent individuals in impossible situations under unbearable pressure.

Instead, the whole thing bears all the reality of a wacky BBC studio sitcom, a tone mirrored by Libby Watson’s atrociously overbearing design. Watson has surrounded the stage with blocks of shiny blue plastic – possibly representing office windows (poorly) – and a strip of bright red. It gives the action absolutely no space to breath whatsoever and is further undermined by an impractical set of wood furnishings that puncture all pace when reconfigured between scenes.

Redeeming features are few and far between. Bisset-Smith achieves a handful of sharp one-liners along the way, which might make it past The Thick of It’s script editors. He gives a nicely cynical view of Obama’s victory, presenting it as a gorgeously far-fetched conspiracy theory, including the ensured election of the worst white president paving the way for a black one, though certain elements – such as the West Wing’s role – have been previously voiced. The brilliantly-cast David Verry gives a strong performance as the self-serving Marcus, lending him all the bloated pomposity of a bullfrog, and Kate Sissons does particularly well to mine credibility from the underwritten former activist Olivia. As the charming man himself, Syrus Lowe is likeable enough, but the text’s tasks are too great.

There’s ambition here, both from Bisset-Smith and Theatre 503, but – much like Clegg’s Liberal Democrats – it ends up looking foolhardy and delivering next to nothing.

Photograph: Tristram Kenton

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