Theatre: Love's Labour's lost

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The Independent Culture


THANKS TO Ron Davies's unfortunate experiences, the entire nation has reacquainted itself with the notion of political scandal. Thus the timing of Howard Brenton's and Tariq Ali's satire on New Labour couldn't possibly be better. However, timing is by no means everything.

In fact, Ugly Rumours isn't concerned with sex. The focus is on power - how you get it, how you keep it and what it does to you - with most of the action in the hands of spin doctors Polly Mendacity and Charlie Ferrago. These twin black-suited women guide us through the day-to-day manipulation of Tony-Boy and his wife Cherry-Pop plus Tony's biggest headache, the Leader of the Opposition. No, not the Tory leader, but his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon McDuff.

However, if you're going to line up such obvious targets you should ensure that your weapons - language, characterisation and ideas - have real bite and punch. Which is where Ugly Rumours falls down. No, collapses.

There is a long history of political satire on stage but the zest and splenetic vigour which characterises the best of the genre is almost entirely absent here. Brenton and Ali's track record is proof of their sincerity but belief in an idea - in this case the importance of democracy - is not the same as the ability to dramatise it. Assembling short, pointed scenes is one thing. Providing a limp checklist of names and references is another. This astonishingly self-satisfied script is one of the laziest in town.

There is precious little drama because the ideas are either entirely predictable or lamentably short-winded. Instead, we watch vaguely linked sketches with Tony-Boy revealed to be in cahoots with a cobweb-ridden Thatcher or merely paying lip-service to the idea of democracy.

The notion that New Labour is all surface and no substance and harbours a right-wing agenda is hardly news. Indeed, you've probably heard it all before on satire shows like Week Ending. However, that late-lamented comedy slot would either have slung out much of this material or given it comic momentum with the kind of tough editing that is absent from this merely adequate production.

None of which is the fault of the hard-working cast. In addition to looking and sounding almost uncannily like Gordon Brown, Gordon Kennedy's manic energy fires up the proceedings as he vents his frustration at his leader's machinations. As Tony-Boy, the convincingly charming Neil Mullarkey suffers from his character's inconsistency. Starting out as the vapid puppet of his spin doctor, he undergoes a complete personality transplant in the last twenty minutes. Just when you've given up, a plot arrives and for the first time the audience is treated to a hint of tension. Alas, it is far too late.

There is the odd decent one-liner but anyone in search of good political writing should head for An Ideal Husband. A century older, Oscar Wilde's play is more telling, more topical and, most importantly of all, more dramatically incisive.

A version of this review appeared in later editions of yesterday's paper