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Posts Tagged ‘Steve Waters’

As I get older I find myself seeing plays anchored in modern history that I’ve lived through, though with unreliable memories. This is another timely one, about the creation of the SDP as a reaction to a Labour lurch to the left on a tide of member activism with a policy of EU withdrawal and an unelectable leader. Who said history doesn’t repeat itself! To add an extra frisson, I saw it on the day Article 50 was invoked, something there will no doubt one day be a play about, but probably not in my lifetime.

It takes place the day after the Labour conference which cemented the lurch, in David Owen’s fashionable East End home (uber realistic design by Alex Eales). The gang of four, as they were known, are convened by Owen. His attempts to pick the others off one by one are rumbled and seen as manipulative and divisive. His American wife Debbie is key to toning down his excesses, which are clearly winding the others up. They struggle to make decisions under time pressures of their, well Owen’s, making, but they make it in the end, after the debate on alternative options leads them back to there being only one real option. Though the initiative failed in the end, it may in some way have paved the way for New Labour’s later successful bid for power from the same middle ground and the Lib Dems eventual entry into coalition. It lags a bit in the middle, with circular debates that go nowhere (which may be true, but don’t make good drama) and it doesn’t have the pace, energy or incisiveness of something like James Graham’s This House, but it’s a fascinating piece of history and way more timely that you could ever imagine.

Roger Allam is the only actor who doesn’t have the responsibility of playing a living figure. His Roy Jenkins, then President of the EU Commission, is uncanny. He’s very old school, a touch bumbling, with a penchant for expensive French wine. David Owen comes over as a somewhat unsympathetic character and Tom Goodman-Hill captures his ambition, passion and manoeuvring well. I loved Debra Gillett’s characterisation of Shirley Williams, the one everyone loves, and the less well-known Bill Rodgers is played by Paul Chahidi as a passive follower, very much in awe of Jenkins. If the play is to be believed, Debbie Owen had a considerable influence, both on her husband and the others, and Nathalie Armin conveys this very well.

I love seeing plays anchored in real events with real people and, like his previous play Temple about Occupy’ s effect on St. Pauls, Steve Waters particularly timely piece is very welcome indeed.

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You might not expect 100 minutes real time set entirely in a church office to be enthralling theatre, but it is. Steve Waters intelligent play about the dilemma facing the Dean of St. Paul’s when the Occupy protesters are driven to his church steps captivates from beginning to end and Simon Russell Beale gives us yet another master-class in acting.

The 100 minutes are those immediately before the church is re-opened for services after a two-week closure. The protesters had been driven there away from the target of their ire. The Corporation of London wants the Dean’s support in driving them away altogether by an injunction. The church hierarchy, through the Bishop of London, has no direct authority over St. Paul’s but still seeks to influence it. Some of the Dean’s senior staff feel strongly, at least one to the point of resignation. His PA has gone sick with stress and her cover is seemingly incompetent. The Dean is in an impossible situation and struggles to find a solution and to show leadership.

So much is covered in this short period of time. We learn of the special status of St. Paul’s and the history that puts it there. We see the differing views within the church, varying from logic to pragmatism to principled to passive. The debate that is played out covers the moral and ethical and the practical and expedient. Surrounded by those giving advice, The Dean is in a very lonely place. The Bishop makes it clear what the Archbishop wants, the City Lawyer uses her legalistic jargon to spell out where the Corporation sits. His staff think they know what Jesus would do and the PA proves to be wiser than it seemed at first.

Though its a fiction it feels very real and I kept wondering how much research Waters had done. Howard Davies direction is impeccable, allowing the writing and performances to shine, and Tim Hatley’s realistic design and the Donmar’s intimacy make you voyeurs peering into the room. Simon Russell Beale is perfect casting as the Dean, a very sympathetically written character, and he gives a beautiful, nuanced portrait of a man under pressure, on an emotional roller-coaster, struggling as his conscience and his brain battle within him.

I loved Malcolm Sinclair’s rather pompous Bishop of London who’d taken advice ‘from his communications people’ and was very much in tune with ‘the modern world’ and I thought Rebecca Humphries was superb as the PA Lizzie, moving from dippy temp to show wisdom and passion as she too tries to influence The Dean. There’s also a terrific cameo from Shereen Martin, who perfectly captures the legal eagle blinded by logic but so lacking in emotional intelligence that she would know a moral dilemma if she fell over one.

I was entranced by this gentle, often funny, thought-provoking play and have been reflecting on it ever since. A candidate for Best New Play I’d say. Off you go…..

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