Shirleymander, Playground Theatre, London, review: Linking this play about a 1980s housing scandal with Grenfell is a tacky marketing ploy

Gregory Evans’ play follows the rise and fall of Shirley Porter, a gerrymandering Westminster council leader 

Kaleem Aftab
Monday 28 May 2018 10:11
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Jack Klaff and Jessica Martin in ‘Shirleymander’
Jack Klaff and Jessica Martin in ‘Shirleymander’

Anthony Biggs was determined that his first play as artistic director of The Playground Theatre in Ladbroke Grove would recognise the anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire. The theatre is less than 10 minutes walk from the carcass of the tower block, the focus of a public enquiry into how the residents came to live, and 72 die, in a firetrap.

Biggs read Gregory Evans’ play about the rise and fall of Shirley Porter a few weeks after the tragedy and saw a connection between the gerrymandering seen at Westminster council in the 1980s, where people were evicted from the borough and their vacated houses sold to voters likely to elect Conservative councillors, and the failure of Kensington council and the housing body in charge of the estate to follow health and safety laws and protect those resident in the tower block.

The link has been played up more in the publicity material surrounding the play than in the production itself, where the tie-in with Grenfell is only made through an image of the blackened, burnt-out building seen on a screen at the side of a set that looks like it’s been inspired by a 1980s game show. The red, green and blue blocks on the floor are designed to echo the ethos posited here that the Westminster council leader, Porter, saw her policy as part of a game, where winning at any cost was her goal.

Linking this play with Grenfell feels a tad unnecessary and a bit of a tacky marketing ploy. The broad, satirical tone of Evans’ play feels at odds with the heartbreaking accounts of ongoing local and national government failure currently being recounted at the public inquiry.

This production sets Porter up as an almost pantomime villain, where we know that she is a piece of work from the word go and it’s only a matter of time before the world catches on to her. This makes her an entertaining but one-dimensional figure.

The play takes much of its information from Andrew Hosken’s book Nothing Like a Dame, and where it is strong is in recounting how a near-miss election defeat led Porter to come up with a plan to target marginal seats, “the super eight”, to create policies to ensure that Westminster would not fall into socialist hands.

Jessica Martin plays Porter with a lot of gusto and she’s ably supported by fellow cast members, especially Jack Klaff and Amanda Waggott, who all play a number of roles. Porter is positioned as an ambitious individual who wants to climb out of the shadow of her Tesco founding father and be as prominent a politician as the grocer’s daughter residing at Number 10.

While satire is often a great tool to look at politics, here it feels knowingly smug and leaves no room for poignancy. The production is too broad in tone and in scope and often brushes over moments of high drama as it races to get to its next bit of exposition.

While it is undeniably entertaining and has a fun soundtrack featuring Soft Cell and The Clash, it feels like an opportunity to look into how Thatcherite policies created political gangsters has been slightly wasted.

Until 16 June (theplaygroundtheatre.london)

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