Politics is staging a comeback

Fewer of us may be voting, or helping in political campaigns, but there's a growing dramatic interest in those who govern us. Kate Youde reports

Kate Youde
Sunday 17 June 2012 00:28

If you believe the saying, "politics is showbusiness for ugly people", it will come as no surprise that politicians are centre stage this summer as theatres host a glut of shows focused on the corridors of power. But stage professionals say the interest in political theatre, from light-hearted comedies to serious plays, reflects the public's disillusionment with politics and a desire to deride those who govern us.

Michael Frayn said it was "curious" that people should want to see politics on stage when election turnouts are so low and there is less interest in general. "Maybe it's yet another example of politics being distanced," said the playwright, whose thriller Democracy, based on events during the final months in office of West German chancellor Willy Brandt, is being revived at London's Old Vic. "It's just like professionalisation of sport: instead of taking part in games people want to watch other people playing games on television," Frayn adds.

It is a desire to empower audiences that has led Populace – a theatre company founded in response to last year's cuts protest outside Fortnum & Mason – to use immersive techniques. Artistic director Tom Ross-Williams said many satires excluded people not engaged with politics, and verbatim theatre could be a "bit pacifying".

An Edinburgh Festival Fringe spokesman said the genre is "incredibly well" represented this year. Premieres will include I, Tommy, Ian Pattison's new comedy about Scottish politician Tommy Sheridan, and Coalition, starring Phill Jupitus. Political satirist Alistair Beaton, who is writing a film for Channel 4 about the break-up of the UK, said the "range of romps" on the way suggests a move to political drama that is also entertaining. People need entertainment, he said, "not just rather grim finger-wagging" when times were bad, and many new productions have a "sense of lightness" not fashionable in recent years.

Dan Rebellato, professor of contemporary theatre at Royal Holloway, suggests politics itself is a "bit more farcical" than it used to be, with David Cameron texting "LOL" to Rebekah Brooks, and MPs' expenses scandals. But there are plays, like Laura Wade's Posh, which are a genuine "attempt to understand what the Government is that some of us elected", he added.

However, Sir David Hare, whose play South Downs is being shown with Terence Rattigan's The Browning Version in the West End, said that no successful new play had "entered the public bloodstream" since Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem. "If you want to write directly about the Cameron era ... I think it's very difficult because it feels like a dreary rerun of Thatcherism and nobody has found new ways of writing directly about it."

Novelist and playwright Stella Duffy believes current political theatre is "not political anywhere near enough" because it still suggests that men have all the power and, although that is not untrue, it is "a bit tired".

Yes, Prime Minister

From the writers of the classic 1980s television comedy, it has toured the UK twice since opening at Chichester Festival Theatre in 2010 and is back in the West End for a third time – now at Trafalgar Studios. A new TV series starts filming in August.

Clinton The Musical

Brothers Paul and Michael Hodge's show tells the story of former US president Bill Clinton. After reading his autobiography, they decided to present two Bills: one wanting instant gratification, the other defined by his empathy. It debuts at the Edinburgh Festival in August.

The Tragedie of MacClegg

This political satire – not "mindless Clegg-bashing" – from Oxford students Thomas Bailey and Efraim Carlebach uses the Macbeth structure to examine the rise of Nick Clegg, played by Aleks Cvetkovic. Appearing at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August.


One of the highest-grossing shows in the Royal Court's history, Laura Wade's hit is now at the West End's Duke of York's Theatre. It features the elite Oxford student dining society, the Riot Club. The fictional body echoes the Bullingdon Club of Cameron, Osborne, and Boris Johnson fame.

I, Tommy

The new comedy by Rab C Nesbitt creator Ian Pattison tells of Solidarity politician Tommy Sheridan, right, jailed for perjury in 2011, and his journey from notoriety to infamy via swingers' clubs. The production tours Scotland in the autumn after an Edinburgh Festival Fringe run.


Comedians Phill Jupitus and Jo Caulfield help chart the final days of the coalition government in late 2014: the Conservative PM and his Lib Dem deputy have not spoken for months. Co-written by Robert Khan, a Labour councillor in Islington, north London, the show premieres at Edinburgh's Pleasance Dome in August.

Kidnapping CameronFeeling she has no chance of getting a university place, job, or her own home, 13-year-old Lucy hatches a plan: to kidnap the PM and hold the Government to ransom until her problems are fixed. Birmingham Repertory Theatre's youth company, The Young REP, presents Jennifer Tuckett's funny new play next month.

The Election: A Silent Comedy

The Awkward Cough company portrays the dying hours of a doomed political campaign for August's Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Performer Ian Farnell says the company is excited about taking a "totally non-verbal, comically slapstick" to the "very verbal, very complex subject" of politics.

A Walk-on-Part

Based on the diaries of former Labour MP Chris Mullin, this play opens at London's Arts Theatre on Tuesday after sell-out double runs elsewhere. Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and George Osborne are among more than 100 characters.


Bola Agbaje's satirical play is at the Bussey Building, Peckham, south London, until Saturday after opening to full houses at the Royal Court in Sloane Square. It focuses on Kayode, a British MP who returns to Nigeria after defeat at the polls in Croydon.

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