Julian Eaves reviews Jessica Martin in Shirleymander about Lady Shirley Porter now playing at London’s Playground Theatre.
25th May 2019
Three cheers for Jessica Martin’s magnificent tour-de-force as Lady Shirley Porter in this spanking new exploration of corruption in high (London Borough of) Westminster places. In an age when we keep looking around for more and bigger and better roles for women in the theatre – and women of some maturity at that – this one explodes like a New Year’s Eve firework display all over Gregor Donnelly’s Top-Of-The-Pops-type set bringing heart-felt cheers and standing ovations from an awestruck public.
We know we’re in for something spectacular when we first enter into this strange, primary colours world, all rectilinear slabs arranged in a higgledy-piggledy immovable assault course, threaded above with thin glowing strips of tinted neon (Lighting, Sherry Coenen), over which the transient lives of the persons of this drama pass as comfortably and as easily as they can – which is not very, while the thumping soundtrack of 80s chart hits (Sound, Yvonne Gilbert) pounds out optimism and glamour. Parading her in a (catwalk packed) series of outfits (Assistant Costume Designer, Joanna MacDonald), and in bespoke Richard Mawbey hair designs, writer Gregory Evans takes us back into the life and times of one of the most famous – and notorious – local government personalities since T. Dan Smith, the extraordinary and unforgettable former Leader of Westminster City Council, Shirley Porter.
His masterstroke comes at the start, when we get to see her in a quiet, unassumingly private moment as the caring wife of an ailing older spouse (Jack Klaff, in one of his several roles: everyone else gets to play many parts, perhaps emphasising their comparative superficiality and inter-changeability: only Shirley remains Shirley throughout, the fixed, immovable star at the centre of their universe). This is a brilliantly simple scene; instantly, our sympathies are engaged on her side – not that she ever asks for them. The only thing she does demand, and passionately and stridently and resolutely (remember ‘The Resolute Approach’?), is what she deems to be her rights, and what is the ‘right’ thing to do. And those she goes after with a consequentiality and single-mindedness that are still today breath-taking in their intensity and energy.
The role of Porter is colossal: she is hardly ever off stage. And when she does get away from us, it is seemingly with the express purpose of changing into another spot-on 80s confection. Remember hound’s tooth? Remember bows?? They’re all here. In abundance. Martin’s ‘Leader’ is a veritable Eva Peron of rainbow colours and smart, power dressing. But, of course, with the common touch never far from her fingers. She is certainly not above telling others – like members of the audience, ranged on pretty music chairs in three tiered rows on either side of the traverse stage – to pick up litter. That moment, like so many others in this tightly written script, screams for recognition from those who lived through the heavily televised career of the publicity hungry Shirl. And now a new generation is rediscovering her in this grand, epic drama.
With many ‘alienating’ techniques at their disposal, Evans and director Anthony Biggs offer us a kind of Brechtian meditation on power and its corrupting effects. Andrew Hosken’s biography, ‘Nothing Like A Dame, The Scandals of Shirley Porter’ is quoted in the amusingly contrived programme as a source, and Evans himself writes of the ‘tragic’ nature of her career. But this is not a tragedy in the Aristotelian sense. Instead, we are asked to engage our minds and think, to reflect upon what we see and hear. The emotional temperature through the whole evening remains remarkably cool and almost detached; there is some humour, and different audiences respond to that in varying degrees, but – overall – the tone is didactic and objective. Until the end. Then, when we are finally released from the spell the play has cast upon us, we react with remarkable boldness. It is as if we have discovered something very important, not just about those in whom we are invited to place our trust – our rulers – but also about ourselves. And we are jolly glad to have made this discovery. It makes us feel that we can face today’s world with a surer sense of who we are and what we are about. How many experiences in the theatre leave us feeling like that?
The rest of the ensemble do an interesting job with their neatly written parts. Omar Baroud is always strongly focussed. James Horne deliciously varied in his roles, including Shirley’s Father and the District Auditor (who brings down the Porter house of cards). Klaff, as mentioned, is super, and ingeniously paces his roles to climax with the icy control and command of the Chairman of Tesco. Porter’s wealth came from her father’s creation of the populist gargantua of British supermarkets, but she was kept out of its boardroom following the death of her parent: and seeing this scene still brings chills to the spine. George Potts does a wonderful job of humanising all his characters, especially the stricken Chief Executive of Westminster. And Amanda Waggott will forever live in our minds with a retinue of brilliantly accomplished parts, including a male Doctor forever oiling his shotgun when not waving it around in the Council chambers.
Generally speaking, we get naturalistically written scenes, strung together with Shirley’s – and others’ – direct to audience narrations. On the whole, I think the ‘show them’ approach works better than the ‘tell them’, particularly when considered quantitatively. Another element we need to consider is the occasional burst of movement from Lily Howkins. It is listed as ‘choreography’, but – honestly – the stage space is far too incommodious for it to gain that kind of freedom or fluidity (unless we are to consider the spasmodic gyrations of disco ‘mood’ dancers, perched on platforms above the hoi-poloi of nighthawks, in such terms). But the very Saturday night light entertainment style of the of the production design, combined with the uber-recognisable soundscape, does seem to cry out for something freer and more rapid and, well, just easier on the eye – and ear. Constantly watching the actors clambering up and down and across and over the obstacle course of the set put me strongly in mind of a TV programme I once saw, hosted by the contemporaneous Esther Rantzen, who dazzled and exhausted us all in equal measure with her remarkable ability to scoot repeatedly from one end of the studio to the other at speed, clutching a microphone, and in heels. The thing is, I’m not sure that the sheer strength of that visual image here doesn’t dominate over the story-telling.
There are moments – many – when we long for there to be some release form the fixed geometric prison of the set. We yearn to see these actors doing more than they are currently able to do. Furthermore, the play currently feels rather like a courtier-driven Racine drama, where we never get to touch the outside world (pace the rare precious glimpse of Shirley bagging raisins with dad). What I mean is, we are told about the real people inhabiting asbestos-riddled housing, but we do not get to meet or hear from them, and that – I think – is odd, in a theatre that is hosting this play, deliberately chosen to reflect the current political climate, a matter of a few hundred yards up Latimer Road from the charred carcass of the Grenfell Tower. It is that building, tellingly, whose image flashes across the (all too sparingly used) projections that close the show. We know what it is, and what it represents, and we also know that the survivors of its terrible destruction are struggling to have their voice heard and acted upon. They are here, in this play, too. Quoted in letters taking issue with other problems. Even if their name is Nigella Lawson. When her name pops up, it’s a funny joke, but it dodges a crucial confrontation that this drama seems to prepare us for, without – yet – providing.
Until 16 June 2018