Lyric Theatre’s Dick Whittington is the opposite of festive garbage

8 December 2018

9:00 AM

8 December 2018

9:00 AM

One of the biggest stars of the 1970s was the professional lard-bucket Mick McManus, who plied his trade as an all-in wrestler. The sport was televised to millions. The parents of the playwright Michael McManus must have calculated that by giving their child the same name as ‘The Dulwich Destroyer’ they would subtly galvanise his intellectual ambitions. Their ploy paid off. The young Michael McManus, lumbered with the identity of a potato-shaped pugilist, seems to have toiled night and day to distinguish himself from his pot-bellied namesake. He succeeded in establishing his intellectual credentials by working as a political diarist, a ministerial adviser, and by writing well-received biographies of Jo Grimond and Ted Heath.

His new play, An Honourable Man, imagines the formation of a post-Brexit centrist party under the leadership of a popular Labour MP, Joe Newman. Deselected by Momentum, Joe stands as an independent against a Corbynite stooge. He wins. Waves of popular acclaim greet this victory and he sets about reshaping British politics from the centre-left.

Joe is a man for our times. The gay son of Czech refugees, he’s able to talk about immigration and LGBTQ rights without being accused of bias. Yet he seems too drippy, too uncharismatic, too much of a plodder to lead a revolt against the establishment. And it’s unclear what he really stands for. Pressed to reveal his core beliefs, he shrugs: ‘I’m on the side of the underdog.’ But sympathy for losers is an emotional reflex, not a political creed. The script delivers a few semi-adolescent asides. ‘The job titles are filthy,’ comments one of Joe’s chums, ‘Chief Whip, Black Rod, Honourable Member.’

McManus has asked a lot of well-placed pals to add authenticity to the production. Su Pollard provides the voiceovers. Shaun Ley reads news clips from what appears to be a BBC studio. Journalists James Naughtie, Carolyn Quinn and Sue Cameron have all contributed recorded material. And backbench MPs Ken Clarke, Nigel Evans and Stephen Pound managed to find time in their busy schedules to contribute waggish prerecorded speeches. (Nothing better to do, lads?)

The playwright’s impressive contact list would have benefited from the inclusion of a script editor, who might have handled the play’s romantic elements more artfully. Before the story begins, Joe has been ousted by a devout Corbynista who was also his lover. That’s a great set-up for a play because it holds the romantic and the political interests of both partners in perilous disharmony. But McManus tosses this promising affair aside and introduces us to Joe’s new young adviser who friskily tries to seduce his boss. That affair fails too quickly and is also discarded. Not a bad play but some way short of brilliance.

Slovenly and ill-prepared pantos are an annual Christmas hazard. I once saw a celebrity dame who forgot his lines, waddled into the wings and came back with a script from which he read his entire performance. The Lyric Hammersmith has created the opposite of festive garbage. Dick Whittington is a smash. Writers Jude Christian and Cariad Lloyd have given the story a light-hearted political twist. The super-evil Queen Rat, leader of the Alt-Rat movement, tries to cheat her way to victory in the mayoral election. Opposing her is Dick Whittington, played as a daft Welshman, who forms an alliance with the slinky Tom Cat and an angelic fairy, Bow Belles, who was once Queen Rat’s best friend.

The show is aimed at youngsters but the writers can’t resist the odd adult treat. The dame runs a bistro with a coffee-machine labelled ‘Grindr 2000’. ‘I like an early riser,’ she pouts when the star of the show arrives for breakfast. ‘I can’t say I was expecting Dick at this time of the morning.’ When Dick leaves London he stows away on a ship named Boaty McBoatface where his fellow sailors welcome him as a ‘salty seaman’ who must ‘work his passage’. I don’t want to suggest that the show is vulgar throughout. The blue gags occur at the reasonable rate of one every 15 minutes.

Some of the performances are outstanding. Keziah Joseph (Tom Cat) is smart and cockily amusing. Jodie Jacobs (Bow Belles) has a formidable comic talent and her amazing voice can pack the emotional punch of Aretha’s. Margaret Cabourn-Smith (Mayor Pigeon) has superb comic instincts and a rare ability to magnetise the gaze: when she enters a scene she becomes its focus. Carl Mullaney’s charismatic dame has the twinkly sadness of Larry Grayson. And Sarah-Louise Young (Queen Rat) plays farce like a rocket-fuelled Rik Mayall. There was a moment when she pointed at a random adult in the stalls and screamed: ‘What’s your name!?’ Her victim replied mildly, ‘Russell.’ ‘No it’s not!’ she shrieked, stamping her feet. ‘It’s Mr Poo Poo!’ The house collapsed laughing. Me too. No idea why. I just did.

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