Brexit, Brexit Negotiations, Edinburgh Fringe, European Union, Hal Cruttenden, Jo Caulfield, Mike McShane, Pippa Evans, Pleasance Courtyard, Politics, Robert Khan, Theatre Review, Timothy Bentinck, Tom Salinsky
Today is the first time that I have seen a show in the Pleasance Beyond and I am reluctant to pursue the acquaintance. It’s a big hot theatre – a three-hundred seater – with the gradient of the seating being not steep enough for me to see the play to my satisfaction. This venue also does not look convincingly safe. After today’s show had ended, it had taken over eight minutes of jostling to get me from my seat and out into the open air. During a fire or a public emergency – when theatregoers are confused rather than determined to get out – and when they might assume that there are fire exits behind the stage (there aren’t) – the Beyond would probably not acquit itself very well. Tychy’s verdict on this venue is: avoid.
Fighting to get out of a disaster zone is, of course, the theme of Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky’s latest political comedy. “Brexit” is set in 2020, when Brexit is still inevitably in limbo. It details the attempts of an unscrupulous Tory Prime Minister, Adam Masters (Timothy Bentinck), to hold together a cabinet that contains both a leading Europhile, Diana Purdy (Pippa Evans) and a passionate Brexiteer, Simon Cavendish (Hal Cruttenden). It is two sinister and unelected figures, however, who are really wielding all of the power. Mike McShane plays Paul Connell, a senior political consultant who possesses nine-tenths of the brains at Westminster, whilst Jo Caulfield is Helena Brandt, a slightly more lizardlike version of Michel Barnier.
These characters are familiar and yet they are placed at a certain remove. Brandt is Barnier; Masters is all but Theresa May; Connell is an amalgam of Nick Timothy and Olly Robbins; Cavendish is one of Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg; whilst Purdy, jutting and liberal, is visibly modelled on Amber Rudd. One supposes that “Brexit” must have been written before Rudd’s fall from power, when she had still resembled a future leader.
In such madcap times, when it is mandatory for every pollster to jokingly declaim that politics is now hopelessly unpredictable, you have to wonder at the bravery, or the folly, of trying to forecast where the Brexit negotiations will be in two years. Perhaps there is nevertheless a discreet understanding between the audience and this play that we are watching a recognisable interpretation of politics from a few months ago that has been projected on to the near future. Masters is presiding over something akin to May’s Chequers deal. In both cases, a risk-averse PM has strived to engineer a consensus and ended up alienating absolutely everyone.
“Brexit” puts most of its weight on to the 1980s sitcom Yes, Prime Minister, though this is sometimes transferred to the more frantic and modern one, The Thick of It, as when Purdy accidentally likes and retweets her opponent’s leadership bid on Twitter. The chief irony that this play dresses itself in is that it ridicules Masters for not choosing between Leave and Remain, and then reiterates this neutrality within its own structure. There is a scrupulous symmetry to the story: the Leave and Remain supporting ministers are both equally powerless; whilst Connell’s malign influence at Westminster is matched by Brandt’s at Brussels.
Today’s largely middle-class audience would clearly prefer it, though, if there was more respect toward Brussels. There is a moment in this play when the Brexiteering minister dramatically declares that the Remain campaign had comprised people who have always won – the bankers, the media, and the establishment. With Brexit, they have, for the first time ever, lost, and “they are seething.” All sound is instantly swallowed up – it is so quiet in the theatre that it is as if every heart has ceased to beat. When the Europhile minister cries out in frustration, “oh fuck off!” there is applause, cheers and relief. The opposite would have no doubt occurred in a working men’s club. There is no hilarity here – this is simply open class warfare.
Likewise, the play gradually succumbs to a fatalistic despair. The story decides upon an EU that is powerful and manipulative, rather than one that is being slowly throttled by right-wing populism. Brandt, having ripped up a copy of a proposal from an elected minister in front of us, wants to make future UK referendums about EU membership illegal. It is hard to innocently laugh at this and maybe Khan and Salinsky’s comedy should be officially reclassified as horror.