Hangmen, Royal Court Theatre

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I thought of Mark Lawson while watching Hangmen. Mark Lawson, as he made very clear three years ago, is no fan of the scene change. And Hangmen has one of the most drawn-out, deliberate, metamorphic scene changes I’ve witnessed on stage. A big, bold, statement-making scene change.

Martin McDonagh’s new play opens in the dying days of the death penalty. Famed Lancashire hangman Harry and his assistant Syd are just doing another job, getting on with the nine to five. The world, though, is about to change. With the condemned man eventually dispatched, at the end of the first scene Anna Fleischle’s entire detailed prison cell set shudders upwards, slowly disappearing from sight. The hangman’s dangling noose, lit by a single shaft of light, is lifted away.

It’s a stunning transition and a symbolic shift from one age to another. When the lights come up on the Oldham pub run by Harry and his long-suffering wife Alice – just as impressive in its detail – it’s two years later and hanging has just been abolished. Around them, too, the signs of change are creeping in, even if their old-fashioned boozer is still clinging to the past. Rock’n’roll music is everywhere and Harry and Alice’s “mopey” daughter Shirley is a new breed of teenager. The social revolution is on its way.

Before it arrives, though, a spectre from Harry’s body-littered past (233 hangings, he unwisely brags to a local newspaper reporter) is about to return to haunt him and his family. Remember that hanging in the first scene? Well there’s a question mark over the hanged man’s guilt – a question mark that soon marches into Harry’s pub, along with a menacing stranger from the south. Just what is it that this intruder wants, and what has it got to do with the man who died protesting his innocence two years ago?

As expected from McDonagh, Hangmen is a masterclass in plotting, complete with a couple of twists that have the whole audience collectively, audibly gasping. It’s good old-fashioned narrative theatre, full of unexpected turns and vivid dialogue, and brilliantly done in Matthew Dunster’s carefully pitched production. It’s also dark as the pints of Guinness passed over Harry’s bar, full of cruel humour and simmering with the threat of violence. We all know what McDonagh is capable of by now; the grim and grisly never seems far away.

Much of the play’s sinister undertow comes in the form of Johnny Flynn’s Mooney, the peculiar, scruffy-haired stranger who saunters into Harry’s life and Shirley’s affections. David Morrissey is perfectly cast as the reluctantly retired hangman, all no-nonsense bluntness and blokey self-importance, as is the brilliant Reece Shearsmith as Harry’s stuttering and uncertain former assistant Syd. Yet somehow it’s Flynn who stands out, his shifting, swaggering sense of menace as hard to pin down as Mooney’s questionable intentions. Is he a psychopathic serial killer, or just a serial piss-taker?

McDonagh’s a bit of a piss-taker himself, gleefully pastiching British (and particularly Northern) culture of the 1960s and tricking his audience at every turn. And, of course, Hangmen is funny. Very funny. Even if the laughs – prompted by jokes as unapologetically (and sometimes problematically) offensive as you’d expect from McDonagh – sometimes leave the sour aftertaste of a bad pint. This is the unsavoury side of Britishness, suffused with casual racism and misogyny, whose habits and traditions might – like the death penalty itself – be better resigned to the past.

Fifty years on from the abolition of hanging in the UK, Hangmen is not the play to examine the ethical intricacies of the death penalty or the complicated ins and outs of the justice system. It would never want to be. Still, though, between the laughs it shows a nation on the brink of change, as well as the nastiness that can sometimes be wrapped up in nostalgia. The paraphernalia of Harry’s trade might be lifted away, but its ugly traces remain.

Photo: Simon Annand.

Violence and Son, Royal Court

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Originally written for Exeunt.

“Sometimes you start out stupid you end up being nasty.” That seems to be the diagnosis handed out to modern masculinity in Violence and Son, Gary Owen’s knotty new play at the Royal Court. In a society in which aggression and casual sexism are passed down like bad joints, brutality is a fact of life. Misogyny is inherited, violence inevitable. 

The words are spoken by Rick, whose nastiness has a habit of rearing its head after a few pints. There’s a reason the locals call him Violence (Vile for short). But for the last six months his life in the Welsh valleys with girlfriend Suze has been invaded by Liam, the teenage son he’s never known. On the surface, the pair couldn’t be more different. Liam is gentle, nerdy, prone to sporting a fez à la Matt Smith in Doctor Who. Still mourning for the loss of his mother, he sharpens his wit with sardonic swipes at his dad, avoiding Vile’s fists when he’s had a gutful. They are, as Liam puts it, getting used to one another.

In the confined circular space of Cai Dyfan’s set, ominously reminiscent of the boxing ring, father and son square up. It all starts amiably enough. Home from a Doctor Who convention with schoolfriend Jen – the Amy Pond to his bow-tie wearing Doctor – Liam agonises over their shifting relationship and bats away crude but well-meaning advice from Rick. It’s will-they-won’t-they meets odd couple comedy, peppered with gags and simmering with menace. There’s always the sense of something more lurking underneath, but Hamish Pirie’s canny production keeps the tone deceptively light and playful, the laughs rarely letting up.

Then, of course, comes the flip. It’s one of the oldest dramaturgical tricks in the book, but Owen and Pirie pull it off with gut-punching precision. The hints have all been dropped – the nickname, the undertow of discomfort, the troubling pub punch-up anecdote – but from the moment blood is drawn the mood suddenly turns with a queasy lurch. Rick and Liam’s relationship graduates from good-natured tussling to something altogether nastier, before Liam turns out to have more in common with his old man than we – or he – first thought.

Violence isn’t just the nickname of Liam’s aggressive, booze-dependent dad. It seeps into everything, from piss-ups down the pub to the delicate dynamic between father and son. And in a world in which violence is the norm, consent and complicity become increasingly tangled. Where is the line drawn between what’s acceptable and what’s not? What happens when actions and words are saying two different things? When is it worth standing up for yourself, and when is it better to be quietly complicit in the role of victim?

The play is one of questions rather than answers. Although Owen refuses to blur lines when handling sexual violence and consent, what he does do is place an individual act against a complex backdrop of normalised violence. It’s a risky tightrope to walk, but both play and production manage to withhold judgement at the same time as resisting the position of apologist. No remains no, yet we are dared to fall in love with Liam as a character, complicating our response to his actions. As the 17-year-old protagonist, David Moorst is all defensive wit and squirming awkwardness, his spiky charm covering up the fresh grief of losing his mother. Both in the way he shrinks – sometimes barely perceptibly – from his father and, later, in the stubborn set of his jaw, the scars of masculinity are beginning to show.

Rick, too, is harmed by the same violence he perpetrates. Jason Hughes puts in an astonishing performance as the reluctant father, torn between his habitual aggression and the genuine desire to do right by his newly returned flesh and blood. Even in the most light-hearted of moments, there’s a flicker of danger perpetually behind his eyes, a fuse waiting to be sparked. In one scene, as Rick’s impulse to comfort his son struggles to find any expression other than violence, his shoulders convulse with the effort of wrestling down his emotions. It reminds me of Men in the Cities and Chris Goode’s description of the artwork that gives the show its name: “each man is drawn contorted in a different way, in his own way, flailing”.

Offered such a grim and nuanced look at the state of masculinity in the twenty-first century, it’s easy to underestimate the complexity of the two female characters. Morfydd Clark’s Jen especially is a meticulous study of teenage confusion, forever painfully calculating between what she wants, what she’s been told to want and what society has taught her she will get. It’s terrifying, yet not at all surprising, to witness the extent to which she’s already accepted the sexism that pervades everything from Doctor Who to the local pub where gropes are standard. Being a woman, Jen seems to have worked out, is all about finding and playing the right role. One wrong step can be disastrous. And though the role of Suze is the least developed of the quartet, as played by Siwan Morris we get glimpses of the tension between her instinctive tenderness and the internalised misogyny that makes her loyal to Rick. Men writhe dangerously inside their own skins; women put up with the lesser of many evils. Patriarchy shits on everyone.

Tonally, as well as thematically, Violence and Son is quite a feat, handling the greyest of ethical grey zones with the same deft hand as the opening comedy. In the end, though, Owen pushes the seesaw too far the other way, driving his point into the ground. The pressure of the final plot contrivance threatens to crush the closing scene, making unnecessarily explicit what is up to that point brilliantly subtle. Still, it’s an analysis of masculinity and a portrait of twenty-first-century society that’s hard to shake off.

Photo: Helen Maybanks.

Theatre as Argument

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There’s a lot to be said about Nicholas Hytner’s tenure at the National Theatre. Hell, there are probably people already working on books about it. There’s the introduction of NT Live and the use of new spaces in and around the building; there’s the commercial success of shows such as War Horse, One Man, Two Guvnors and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time; there’s the NT’s growing association with, for want of a better word, more “experimental” companies creating work beyond its walls. And then there’s the uncomfortable, lingering question about the imbalance of male to female artists, something I’ve written about in the past, which forms part of a much broader set of issues around representation and accessibility – issues of vital importance for a theatre that purports to be “national”.

As fascinated as I am by the narratives that establish themselves around certain theatre institutions and artistic directors, though, I don’t want to go into any of that right now. But what I was struck by yet again reading Michael Billington‘s assessment of the Hytner era (as well as the astonishing statement that the lack of Sheridan revivals is a bigger problem than the under-representation of female writers) was the extent to which theatres in this country are judged by their ability to address “the big issues of the day”. Billington approvingly frames Hytner’s NT as a “forum for debate”, a triumphant statement that is quickly followed by a staggeringly generalised blow to the political credentials of all continental European theatre (“I don’t know of any comparable theatre on the continent […] that feels a need to tackle the crises affecting our daily lives”).

This interests me not just because I instinctively disagree with the narrowness of Billington’s definition of political theatre (more on that later), though I do. It also brings me back to what turned out to be the central question of my MA thesis, which looked at the cultural narratives that have been built around another major, frequently mythologised British theatre: the Royal Court. In that thesis, I suggested that a certain understanding of theatre’s purpose in the world as a (text-based) platform for discussion and debate intersects interestingly with the traditional purpose of theatre criticism, an institution whose history in this country is inextricably tied up, for better or worse, with that of journalism. I wrote that “there is a generally accepted model of writing about new plays, in which the playtext itself is the principal focus of attention and the success of the production rests on the perceived effectiveness of the play’s central ‘argument'”.

I won’t rehearse that whole argument (yes, argument – the irony) again here; it’s in the thesis, for anyone who’s interested, and I’m very open to challenges to my reasoning, as these are ideas that will most likely come into play again later in my PhD. To return to Billington’s article, though, there are two points which are particularly revealing of the role he sees for theatre and for himself as a critic. First is the scepticism and light disdain implicit in his overview of “Hytner’s attempt to redefine what we mean by ‘theatre’,” an endeavour that Billington sums up with the vague, yet also vaguely dismissive, verdict of “artistically mixed”. This is then followed by the observation that two of Hytner’s biggest hits – War Horse and Curious Incident – “have been shows in which text is only one feature of a total theatrical experience”. Erm, doesn’t that essentially describe all theatre?

Secondly, Billington paints the NT’s relationship to the world around it as akin to that of the newspaper or news broadcaster. We have, in line with this idea of the theatre’s role, had shows “about” (I’ll only stop linking to that blog when it stops being relevant) a range of appropriately newsworthy topics: the Iraq War, the financial crisis, climate change, immigration, press corruption. And it’s doubly telling that Billington’s NT article was published by the Guardian just days after Charlotte Higgins‘ long, sprawling piece about political theatre, which departs from some strikingly similar assumptions: “Unlike music, dance and visual art it is theatre’s wordiness – the fact that it likes to place people in a room and have them talk, and disagree – that makes it the artform most closely allied to politics”. Higgins’ article also demonstrates that familiar formulation of theatre as a civic space, pointing back to Athens (where else?) and the central place of theatre in the city-state.

This all points to something that I feel is quite particular to the framing of theatre and its role in the UK. Tom Cornford (who, as an aside, was one of the people I was talking to recently about exactly the kind of narrative-forming that Billington’s article represents) has suggested that most mainstream critics in this country go into shows with “an unthinking expectation of pseudo-realistic form”. I think there’s some truth in that, certainly for some critics, but I’d suggest that it’s even more common for us (and, hands up, I include myself in this) to have the expectation that a piece of theatre will say something; that, explicitly or implicitly, it will articulate some sort of argument, which we will then assess. That’s what we’ve been taught to expect. Those are the terms on which critical discourse has established itself. And if theatre has an argument, that argument is usually expected to spring from the text. It both starts and ends with words.

But performance itself troubles that neat equation. In my current research, which is roughly speaking attempting to theorise the theatre text (emphasis on attempting), I keep encountering this idea of something in performance that is “in excess” of any text. Michael Goldman in On Drama: Boundaries of Genre, Borders of Self, for example, writes that “in drama one finds inevitably an element in excess of what can be semiotically extracted – something that is also neither irrelevant to nor […] completely independent of the text”. Benjamin Bennett, meanwhile, uses the example of Beckett’s famously precise plays in All Theater is Revolutionary Theater to demonstrate that the meaning of the text and the performance – no matter how detailed and prescriptive the former – can never be identical. Unpredictable human bodies and the evident materiality of the stage will always get in the way of that possibility.

This is a much knottier idea than the above paragraph acknowledges, but I won’t attempt to untangle it here. Instead, a pair of examples serve to begin prodding at and problematising that idea of theatre as argument. In my MA thesis, I turned to Katie Mitchell’s production of Ten Billion at the Royal Court in 2012 – an intriguing example, because it’s about as argument-like as theatre gets. After I’d finished writing that thesis, of course, Ten Billion was followed up by 2071, another show about climate change that was seemingly resolute in its lack of theatricality. Billington unsurprisingly offered high praise to both, but I find the terms of that praise really fascinating.

Both Ten Billion and 2071 are explicitly “about” climate change, delivered by scientists (Stephen Emmott and Chris Ripley respectively) and more or less following the format of the lecture. Writing about both shows, Billington acknowledges their questionable relation to theatre in almost identical terms. Reviewing Ten Billion, he writes: “Some will argue this is a lecture, not theatre. But the distinction seems to me nonsensical”. In his review of 2071, he repeats the same point with slightly more force: “Some will argue that this is not really theatre. But the idea that theatre should be exclusively reserved for fiction has been knocked on the head by a surge of documentary dramas and verbatim plays”. He adds, in relation to Ten Billion, that “Theatre is whatever we want it to be and gains immeasurably from engaging with momentous political, social or scientific issues”.

While this tells us a lot about what Billington believes theatre’s purpose to be, there’s little in either review that refers to the theatricality of these events. Most of the space is taken up by relaying and assessing the persuasiveness of the argument in question, with only fleeting mentions of its staging. Going by Billington’s analysis, the facts, figures and conclusions provided by Emmott and Rapley might as well be read in a book. Concluding his five-star review of 2071, Billington surmises that “if we look to theatre to increase our awareness of the human condition” – which he clearly does – “the evening succeeds on all counts”. But in what distinct ways does it succeed (or fail, depending on your opinion) as theatre?

Two other views, each more focused on what Ten Billion and 2071 gain or lose as theatre rather than as pure argument, offer an interesting comparison. Contrary to Billington’s entirely text-focused assessment of Ten Billion, Matt Trueman suggests that Katie Mitchell’s production complicates and problematises Emmott’s argument. “What we watch is 100% lecture and 100% theatre at the same time, and it absolutely thrives on the duality,” Trueman argues. He points to the tension between the naturalism of the staging – a form usually associated with illusion – and the hard facts of Emmott’s lecture, concluding that “we are set in a mode of doubting” as an audience. This built-in doubt, according to Trueman, mirrors the doubt we so often express in response to climate change, burying our heads in the sand when confronted with the stark reality of our planet’s plight. Mitchell, in this view, is doing something extremely sophisticated with her staging; “anyone that dismisses Ten Billion as ‘just a lecture’ is ‘just plain wrong'”.

Stewart Pringle‘s review of 2071 similarly concludes that theatre transforms the argument in question, but to wildly differing effect. Despite acknowledging that what Rapley tells us is all important information and that its presence in the Royal Court Downstairs “is itself a vital political statement”, Pringle argues that placing this lecture in a theatre context “has fatally undermined its utility as anything else”. He writes: “2071 brings something unusual to theatre (the monotonal tedium of a lecture), but theatre has brought next to nothing to it”. Having seen 2071 (I missed Ten Billion), I can agree that it was decidedly untheatrical in its presentation and distinctly dull as a result. As Pringle points out, it’s even less theatrical than most lectures.

In different ways, then, the status of Ten Billion and 2071 as theatre undermines – or at least alters – the arguments they present. The unpredictable “excess” of performance complicates matters. In the case of Ten Billion – if we go with Trueman’s opinion, anyway – the conflicting vocabularies of lecture and stage naturalism create a certain tension in our reception of Emmott’s evidence that would not be present were we reading it from the pages of a book. 2071, meanwhile, suffers from its framing as theatre, making a poor case for the necessity of its place on a stage at the same time as thrusting the theatre’s awkward materiality between audience and content. By actually putting arguments on stage, free from the clothing of narrative and metaphor, these two shows (intentionally or not) point up some of the difficulties around that prevalent “theatre as argument” view.

I want to turn again to a point I made in my MA thesis which feels relevant here: “If theatre – rather than any other public forum – is a uniquely powerful civic space, then surely there must be something it offers in its gathering of bodies that cannot be found in text alone; something in its very theatricality which challenges a critical interpretation of it as the straightforward thesis of the playwright.”

In other words, if there is something uniquely political about theatre – the nation’s “debating chamber”, as Higgins’ article has it – then it has to go beyond text. That’s not necessarily to say that only theatrical form, rather than content, can be political, as that can lead to similarly unthinking reproductions of an existing and supposedly radical set of assumptions. (I’m thinking here about certain formal gestures that were genuinely experimental and radical when they first emerged but have since congealed into their own set of tropes.) But if we limit our understanding of argument or politics to the text, then we ignore something vital about what theatre is and what it can do. After all, as Billington himself puts it, “Theatre is whatever we want it to be”.

P.S. As well as itching an intellectual scratch, this blog is something of a tentative experiment in how to connect my academic research with my thinking and writing elsewhere. In practice, of course, my dual existences often overlap, and everything tends to get thrown into a soupy (if frantically colour-coded) mixture of thoughts. But I’m interested in how to share more of my research process with a wider audience, so let me know what aspects of my PhD research you want to hear more about (“none of them” being a completely acceptable answer to that question).

Fireworks (Al’ab Nariya), Royal Court

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Fireworks is an exercise in dislocation. From its first, flashbulb bursts of light, we are shoved slightly off-kilter. With deft simplicity, Dalia Taha’s play and Richard Twyman’s production wrench us into the fear and uncertainty of war-ravaged Palestine, a suspended present moment in which nothing can be relied upon. Violence shades into playground games and make-believe shimmers with menace.

At the same time, we are always set at one remove. We can never forget that we are, after all, just watching, choosing to spend an interval of our privileged lives in this simulated state of precariousness. We can see the clearly demarcated outlines of Lizzie Clachan’s self-contained bunker of a set, a picture frame opening out onto another world. It might as well be the firework display that its title references; an explosive diversion, one that may leave us rattled but that we can walk away from nonetheless.

This closeness and distance, this sense that we walk in the characters’ shoes but can throw them off at any point, is crucial to how Fireworks functions. We need to be there, with the action, but at the same time always uncomfortably aware of the huge chasm that safely separates us from what is being depicted. We can be transported, but only temporarily, conscious all the while that our shaken responses cannot possibly be enough.

Almost everything happens in the deserted apartment building so vividly represented by Clachan’s design: all exposed pipes and wires, corners cluttered with the detritus of living. The side-by-side existence of two families, eschewing the questionable safety of public shelters for the claustrophobic refuge of home, is here compressed into one space, their lives overlapping and interweaving in the single, dingy room.

Taha’s play is anchored by the two children at its centre, both teetering on the brink of adulthood at the same time as staring down death on a daily basis. The familiar contours of childhood are mapped onto violent, shifting terrain. Like so many other youngsters, Khalil and Lubna play at being soldiers, but their games are unnervingly close to home, throwing back sharp reflections of the conflict they are surrounded by. Khalil’s favourite is the checkpoint game, one played out with chilling brutality.

Adults play too. Khalil’s mother attempts to coax him into childish fantasies, desperate to preserve their brittle shared innocence. The two women find fleeting respite in a game of skipping. Lubna’s father tells her that the rockets lighting up the horizon are just fireworks, a fiction that he seems to take more comfort from than his solemn, perceptive daughter does. Roles are reversed.

Through these playful coping mechanisms and loving deceptions, the lines between reality and fiction become increasingly blurred. Dreams, too, acquire unusual importance, representing a world beyond everyday reality – be that in the afterlife or up among the clouds. With the wall dividing the living from the dead so perilously thin, Taha vividly captures the importance of believing in an existence beyond the final bomb blast or hail of bullets; those lost in the conflict are always martyred, never killed.

If it all sounds a little amorphous, that’s because it is. There is little shape to Taha’s play, which instead lurches from one scene to the next. Given the circumstances, however, it feels utterly apt. The impression created – by everything from the restless performances to Natasha Chivers’ flickering lights – is of delicate moments carved out of an extended, indefinite zone of uncertainty. In the knowledge that everything could come crashing down at any moment, these small exchanges, these little sparks of connection, take on painful, nerve-shattering significance.

Hope, Royal Court Theatre

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Local politics isn’t sexy. It’s the support crew that cleans up while the rockstars break out their set list of strained smiles and hollow promises on the next main stage. I still remember, as a child, my dad frustratedly filling us in on the council meetings he attended as a school governor; the high point, if I recall rightly, was a farcical dispute about bins.

Hope, therefore, is not particularly promising as a theatrical premise. A local Labour council struggles to make budget savings? Not exactly thrilling. But actually, Jack Thorne’s play feels like the perfect drama for the present political moment. In the context of the Royal Court’s revolution themed season, it might not be the most rousing call to arms, but it depicts the possibility for change on a level that actually feels within reach. It makes politics ordinary, turning its gaze on the crippling everyday impacts of austerity in a way that most national politicians seem incapable of imagining.

Thorne’s councillors are in an impossible position. With £64 million of savings to make by 2017, it’s a miserable matter of deciding on the marginally lesser of many evils. Should cuts be made to care for the elderly or the disabled? Where can savings be made on Sure Start Centres? As for the local library and museum – forget it.

Thankfully, though, Thorne’s play is not all hand-wringing budget meetings. At its centre is deputy council leader Mark, a tortured would-be idealist who is desperate to be a good man in dire circumstances. After his similarly tormented turn in Utopia, Paul Higgins seems made to inhabit characters crumbling under pressure, hair more dishevelled by the minute and body curling up further and further into his suit jacket. Compounding the difficulty of the cuts, Mark’s ex-wife Gina (Christine Entwisle) gets wind that her day centre for the disabled is going to be slashed and mounts a big, social media-savvy campaign, while his relationships with precociously intelligent son Jake (Tommy Knight) and fellow councillor and sometime lover Julie (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) come under increasing strain.

Like Mark, everyone on the council wants to “do the right thing” – a phrase that becomes more and more fraught as the play goes on. Never was there more proof that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Stella Gonet’s Hilary is cool and pragmatic, but beneath her armour she’s utterly committed to the town she serves, as is well-meaning, unassuming Lata (Nisha Nayar). At the more idealistic end of the scale are Julie – who also has to juggle the expectations of her council veteran father George (Tom Georgeson) – and recklessly principled Sarwan (Rudi Dharmalingam).

It’s the latter who acts as the catalyst for change, urging his fellow councillors to take a stand. Sometimes, though, principles come at a high price. The fate of the council serves to animate the precarious balance between what is right and what is pragmatic, highlighting the complexity of the decisions currently faced by local government. The choice seems to be a bleak one: either make devastating cuts yourself, or have others make even worse ones for you.

Thorne also turns his attention to the wider predicament of the modern Labour party and the erosion of solidarity by Thatcherite principles of individualism. In a slightly clunky but politically perceptive speech, former council leader George mourns the death of the party he has dedicated his life to and the political fervour that seems to be in retreat: “Idealism is dead. Solidarity is dead. It’s been destroyed by pragmatism and hatred and shame.” At the same time, though, there’s something freeing about this dissolution of past touchstones; “we don’t represent anything any more,” George observes, so perhaps now is the time to make bold decisions for the better.

Theatrically, Hope is not about to set pulses racing, but its plain, sober style feels just right. John Tiffany’s unshowy production contains all the scenes within Tom Scutt’s meticulously realised town hall design, its drab detail a constant reminder of the realities these characters are working within. No giant ball ponds here; this form of political rebellion is not fun (as Russell Brand famously promises) but hard and boring, as real change often tends to be. Revolution is just as likely to be a long slog as a sudden spark of action.

There is, at times, a slight tendency to use characters as mouthpieces for debate. George in particular feels a bit like the weary, battle-hardened voice of old Labour, while Mark and Hilary’s conversation about the advantages or otherwise of principles acts as something of a gloss on the council’s choice of course and its consequences. But however contrived, Hope‘s conclusion somehow, quietly yet insistently – and against all odds – engenders the sentiment of its title. Change probably will be slow and frustrating and involve a hundred painful compromises along the way, and it will probably have a lot more to do with bins and libraries and day centres than the Russell Brands of this world would have us believe, but there’s still the possibility that, if we just try, we might begin to make the world a better place.