The many sides of satire

19 August 2017

9:00 AM

19 August 2017

9:00 AM

Brexit the Musical is a peppy satire written by Chris Bryant (not the MP, he’s a lawyer). Musically the show is excellent and the impressions of Boris and Dave are amusing enough, but the storyline doesn’t work and the script moves in for the kill with blunted weapons. Everyone is forgiven as soon as they enter. Boris swans around Bunterishly, Dave oozes charm, Theresa May frowns and pouts in her leather trousers, and nice Michael Gove tries terribly hard to be terribly friendly. Andrea Leadsom, known to the public as a furtive and calculating blonde, is played by a sensational actress who belts out soul numbers while tap-dancing in high heels and a pencil skirt. Was there ever a kinder portrait of a cabinet minister? Satire is supposed to magnify and ridicule existing stereotypes rather than create fresh ones and celebrate them. The show is more a Tory party singalong than a political broadside, and it might have been written by the chief whip. Hard to see this toothless frivolity reaching the West End but it could easily play, without a syllable being altered, at next month’s Tory conference. They’d love it.

Jan Ravens might get a lot more mileage out of her juddery-voiced Theresa May but she varies her show with other favourites. Hillary Clinton lurches across the stage grinning like a circus clown and waving at people half a mile away whom she’s never met. Ravens offers a cruel but hilarious version of crack-voiced Winifred Robinson who hosts a radio complaints show beloved of embittered pensioners. The highlight is Ravens’s affectionate spoof of Victoria Wood which is part-satire, part-funeral ode.

Another fringe impersonator plays a rebellious rich-kid who vows to shake up the world and improve life for downtrodden Muslims. That was Osama bin Laden in the 1970s. The show’s trick is to give his story to a smooth young thesp, Sam Redway, who has the pin-up looks of Jude Law and the charisma of T.E. Lawrence. The Home Counties perspective forces us to sympathise with Bin Laden’s aims and even to hope that he might humble the Far Enemy. It’s a deeply uncomfortable and deeply dramatic piece of magicianship. The take-home truth here is that Bin Laden’s legacy lives on in the ceaseless harvest of murdered western infidels.

Bin Laden pops up again in Borders by the Spitting Image writer, Henry Naylor. The script follows two parallel stories. A female rebel escapes violence in Syria, while a war photographer in the West hits the jackpot when his snap of Bin Laden is published around the world after 9/11. He gives up reportage and becomes a celebrity-chaser whose contacts include Bono, Angelina Jolie and Robbie Williams. Finally he meets the Syrian migrant when a rescue-ship chartered by a film star saves her from the Mediterranean. This show has won praise from every quarter but no one seems to have spotted what it is: showbiz gossip dressed up as activism.

Abi Roberts is the first Englishwoman to perform stand-up in Russia. She has an effusive personality and an inventive way with words. She hates caviar: ‘like licking the leg of a pier at low tide’.

Snowflake by Mark Thomson looks at today’s dispossessed youngsters. Jax slaves away at a dead-end job while her feckless mum trots around the world splurging the family cash. ‘I’m trying to find myself,’ she writes home. ‘I know I’m out there somewhere.’ This production is a little scruffy and it needs expanding beyond its 60-minute length, but it has everything you want from a modern comedy: it’s funny, eccentric, moving, true-to-life, and full of strange experimental flourishes. It won’t charm everyone but it has a kind of magic.

The Divide by Alan Ayckbourn is a dystopian morality play set in a befuddled and nightmarish future. An epidemic has killed most of Britain’s population leaving a gang of puritanical nutters in charge. They follow the ‘Book of Certitude’ which segregates men from women and states that all females are infected, immoral and promiscuous. In public women must wear black gowns with bank-robber stockings over their faces. Strict laws prohibit dyed clothes, vanity mirrors, literature, painting and alcohol. Well, well. What could this remind us of? Somewhere in here lurks an attack on Islam that hasn’t the courage to express itself plainly. This weakness is compounded by a plot that moves like a tectonic plate. The first act climaxes when some bloke gets caught ogling a Botticelli nude. The second act follows a rebel girl who challenges her elders. Wow, this play is slow. It’s like watching fog clear. But then this is Alan Ayckbourn who has yet to pass the basic test of excellence in a playwright: quotability. I doubt if anyone can recall a single line from any of his works. ‘The end’ doesn’t count.

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