The tiny Finborough Theatre in Earls Court is one of the most stimulating venues in London, fielding a programme that is a bold mix of trenchant, politically thought-provoking new drama and shrewdly chosen revivals of neglected works from the past. For example, last autumn it presented the world premiere of James Graham's Little Madam, a play in which a 12-year-old Margaret Hilda Roberts is granted a sneak preview of her premiership as Mrs Thatcher.
Now the Finborough follows this up with the first revival of Weapons of Happiness, the 1976 play by Howard Brenton that was the inaugural new play in the National's Lyttelton Theatre. It's a drama which, from a broadly Marxist point of view, conjures up a demoralised Britain – in decline and spoiling for a revolution that, when it came, proved to be from the Thatcherite right.
The tactics and values of workers who occupy a potato crisp factory are contrasted with those of an old foreign crank who is a shadowy, ailing presence in the workforce. He turns out to be Josef Frank, a former Czech government minister who was purged in the 1952 show trials. The real-life Frank was executed; Brenton's version lives on and seeks refuge in England. With sudden, jolting shifts that are dexterously negotiated in Alistair Turner's resourceful and devoted production, the play juxtaposes Josef's hallucinatory memories of torture and false confessions under hard-line Communism and his mental travails when his desire to go unnoticed is challenged by the strike.
The young workers' ignorance of history and naive lack of strategy, the despairing resignation of the owner, and the ineffective call to gradualism by the union representative, are all weighed against the profound disillusion of a man who, as a broken husk only, survived "utopia".
Hilton McRae gives the proceedings a powerful spiritual centre as the wrecked, ghostly Frank, whose memory and preservation of a box of raisins saved by a fellow prisoner shines like a spark of hope. Thanks to Katie Cotterell's finely tuned, hard-yet-sensitive performance as the smartest of the young Trots, the weird scenes ache with a sense of thwarted Romantic yearning. You want her to be right when she declares that history never happened ("There, it went away. Goodbye, history") and that it's possible to blink a new world into instantaneous existence.
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