They say a week is a long time in politics, and two hours watching Michael McManus’s political satire feels just as cumbersome. Directed by Jolley Gosnold, An Honourable Man at The White Bear Theatre is written by someone who has been at the heart of British politics for a great many years, and perhaps that’s the problem.
It starts off promisingly, a voice over from Su Pollard explains that we are in the not too distant future and Brexit has happened – ish. The TV screen in the corner springs to life showing a news channel which introduces us to Joe Newman, a Labour MP who has been expelled from the whip and has won the by-election standing as an independent. An Honourable Man then very quickly taps in to the dissatisfaction currently being felt about the main political parties, and paints Newman as the leader of a new party, who subsequently forces a general election.
A superb concept for a modern play, especially given the current political climate and in all honesty, it feels like it could have been written that morning, it is so on the political pulse. But ultimately, like so many manifesto pledges, an engaging narrative fails to materialise. The first act has some interesting concepts; parliamentary procedure and the private life of Joe Newman clashing and contrasting, alongside the notion of unintended consequences driving personal motivations. But towards the end of this act, there is a particularly long scene where the characters are strategising and it suddenly becomes very dull. Although, this scene is necessary in some form, because it’s the only clue we get as to why the majority of characters suddenly become unrecognisable for the remainder of the play.
I’m fairly convinced it’s all supposed to be satire, but doesn’t really have enough humour to work, instead it becomes a barrage of racism, xenophobia and elitism disguised as a political exposé. Double entendre and innuendo are crow-barred in to almost every conversation, for almost no purpose whatsoever, and the references to Shakespeare serve only to remind us of the title.
The second act has so much crammed in to it, that nothing really manages to land. Joe’s sexuality is set up as a big deal but then goes nowhere, Sam’s power-hungry motivations left forgotten, a PR man appears and disappears, Maggie falls ill, but then we never really knew what purpose she served anyway. The list goes on. But if you’re confused by what’s happening on stage, it’s possible to simply watch the TV – the pre-recorded footage makes up at least half of the show, and as it’s set up to be covering the general election, it genuinely becomes the most exciting part.
Michael McManus has clearly pulled in some favours from his friends in the parliamentary estate, with some big names making cameo appearances in the pre-recorded footage. Some are good, others too amateurish, distracting from the already complex narrative.
Timothy Harker’s talents are wasted on the Joe Newman character; while it probably says a lot about the kind of people representing us in parliament, this vacuous character of Newman is far too unlikely a sort to ever reach the top of the political ladder. Thomas Mahy gives a strong performance as Josh, making the most of another character which doesn’t make much sense.
This play had so much potential, but too many fluffed lines only compound the often stilted dialogue, the humour is dreadfully dated and while some of the in-jokes are probably hilarious to anyone who has worked at Westminster, for the rest of us they come off poorly. They also say that all political careers end in failure, and how ironic that An Honourable Man, much like Brexit, is messy, complicated and doesn’t deliver what it promised.