THEATRE / Where there is theatre, let us bring agitprop: Paul Taylor on Trevor Griffiths' anti-Tory tirade Thatcher's Children.

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IT'S no wonder that Mrs Thatcher had to work a famously long day as Prime Minister, given that on top of a crammed programme of curtailing our civil liberties, she was also busy - it now emerges - causing Aids, the 'Piper Alpha' disaster and the October hurricane of 1987.

Or at least, that's the impression you might derive from Thatcher's Children, Trevor Griffiths' new play at the Bristol Old Vic. From time to time during Andrew Hay's intriguing multi-media production, a dispassionate voice-over relays a litany of the bleaker headlines from her years in office. These range from the privatisation of water to famine in Africa, from the salmonella epidemic to holes in the ozone layer, from Zeebrugge to Sellafield. Snaps and mugshots of Margaret Hilda are flashed up - including the well-known photograph of her striding alone across an industrial wasteland (doubtless just checking that nothing has been left unblighted) - with the result that even on those occasions when it would be patently absurd to pin a particular misfortune on her, there's still a feeling of guilt by association.

Undiscriminating slackness of this kind is hardly likely to impress those of us who are non-devotees of the Iron Lady, let alone people who need to be persuaded that the Thatcher decade saw a dismaying impoverishment of values in this country. A lack of proportion vitiates the project in other ways. In this play, the dramatist seeks to extend understanding and sympathy to the generation that was unfortunate enough to reach adulthood while Thatcher was in No 10. Given Griffiths' ideological stance, a happy ending for any of the characters is out of the question. But need he, you wonder, have taken historical determinism to such extremes when portraying the lives of this group?

True, any play that tries to relate individual destinies to social forces runs the risk of suggesting a simplistic inevitability of influence. Thatcher's Children, though, doesn't seem even to acknowledge this as a hazard. Thus, one of the characters, Gurvi, a Sikh boy (splendidly played by Kulvinder Ghir) becomes a drug dealer as though this was just the scrupulously logical career move for someone who has been framed and imprisoned after a race riot and lives in a callous enterprise culture.

The impression that he had next to no choice in the matter is intensified when he co-opts one of Thatcher's own phrases, claiming, 'There is no alternative. Markets maketh man.' Those apocryphal words of St Francis of Assissi, hijacked by Thatcher in 1979, Gurvi icily mocks with the harping substitution of 'profit' for all other values ('Where there is discord, may we bring profit', etc) until 'hope' in the last line is replaced by 'smack'.

The play follows seven Leeds primary school children from 1973 through the Thatcher decade and on to the millennium. Performed by a most engaging cast, it gets off to a promising start with the kids' beguilingly botched nativity play. Causing a real cock-up, the boy playing the innkeeper is reduced to grinning stage fright and cheerfully offers Mary and Joseph a room. From this communal hopeful event, we have moved by 1999 to the enclosed, unsocial world of virtual reality via which one of the characters re-encounters the singing semi- innocents they once were (at least that's what I think is happening).

In between, predictability is all. An Afro-Caribbean lesbian (Heather Imani) turns herself into a power- dressing businesswoman, but still can't belong in England because of Clause 28. Rendered cynical by censorship, a journalist, Daisy (Miranda Pleasence), descends, woodenly, from the Guardian to Sky News. Wayne (Giles Thomas) joins the police, gives false evidence, batters his wife, kills his baby, sells drugs to Gurvi, et cetera, like a true blue boy in blue. It's several years too late when his spouse (played by Cassie Stuart) leaves him to become a biker.

There are odd moments in all this when your feelings are allowed to be mixed and you are reminded of Griffiths' prodigious talent. All too often, though, it's the piece's banality or implausibility (what is posh Tom, who's been down for Sandhurst since he was three, doing in a Leeds comprehensive, for God's sake?) that strikes you. An important subject is reduced to two dimensions, and from the noise around me, it was clear that I was not the only one shifting in my seat.

Bristol Old Vic: 0272 250250

(Photograph omitted)