On 14th June 2017 a massive fire swept through the twenty-four-story Grenfell Tower block of public housing in West London, killing seventy-one people. What has followed since these tragic events has highlighted the huge social housing crisis across London and the rest of the UK. To coincide with the first anniversary of the fire The Playground Theatre, situated barely five minutes walk from the burnt-out building, is to stage the dramatisation of another social housing scandal that rocked the country.
The UK stage premiere of Gregory Evans’ Shirleymander charts the events behind the Shirley Porter Westminster Council ‘homes for votes’ scandal of the 1980s.
Jessica Martin plays the former leader of Westminster Council, and we caught up with her to find out more.
Tell us about Shirleymander which is opening at The Playground Theatre?
”Shirleymander” is a new play about the rise and fall of Dame Shirley Porter who rose to fame as the Tory Leader of Westminster Council in the 1980’s. The dynamic daughter of the founder of Tesco, Jack Cohen she was dubbed the Westminster whirlwind but her thirst for power took local politics down a dark and dubious road.
It’s not about Grenfell, but it does have significance, can you tell us a bit more?
The Playground Theatre, where we are presenting “Shirleymander” is literally a stone’s throw from Grenfell Tower. The thrust of Porter’s campaign to keep Westminster Conservative and one of her unscrupulous practices was to sell council houses to people who were potential Conservative voters and not the underprivileged people they were intended for. The ‘undesirables’ were often moved into tower blocks like Grenfell with the full knowledge that they were not safe for habitation.
Did you know much about Shirley Porter already or did you have to do some research?
I knew very little about Shirley Porter before I was offered the play. I have read Andrew Hosken’s book on her, “Nothing Like A Dame” and watched You Tube footage of her.
What has surprised you the most about Shirley Porter (or the housing scandal) while working on this play?
I am surprised that a woman who was so much in the spotlight and achieved status in different ways has faded from the public consciousness. The folly of gerrymandering is one that seems very relevant today. Perhaps that was a deliberate move from the others involved with her at the time who wish to erase that notorious chapter from history? Or maybe political scandal is all too commonplace and hardly as shocking as it once was?
You’ve had a varied career, what has been the highlight?
The highlight or highlights of my career were working on “Doctor Who” and playing my first lead in the West End as Sally Smith in “Me and My Girl”.
Do you think working on things like Spitting Image has helped prepare you for this role?
Certainly playing well known public figures like Edwina Currie in “Spitting Image” gave me the techniques for focusing on the vocal and physical characteristics of a real personality. Shirley offers great opportunities for exploring every emotion as an actress. It is a great role for a mature woman.
As if you’re not busy enough, you’re writing graphic novels, how did you get in to that?
I got into graphic novels by chance. I showed Phill Jupitus some sketches I’d drawn when we worked together on “Spamalot” and he suggested I write and illustrate a graphic novel. That led to me publishing my first comic “It Girl” about Clara Bow to a full length graphic novel, “Elsie Harris Picture Palace.” I am currently working on a graphic memoir, “Life Drawing. A Life Under Lights”.
Finally, what would you say to anyone thinking about coming to see Shirleymander
Be prepared to be entertained…and uncomfortable. This is a comedy drama but it’s not afraid of going to the dark side in all of us. It is “An Inspector Calls” for the 21st century.
Shirleymander by Gregory Evans runs at The Playground Theatre from May 23 to June 16 – for more information and to book tickets visit http://www.theplaygroundtheatre.london