Theatre Review: A View from Islington North
This sketch show directed by Max Stafford-Clark takes aim at a host of top politicians in five segments.
It is a difficult time to satirise Westminster. With Tory sparring over Europe and Labour moderates wrestling with Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, politics has rarely been more explosive.
Still, the rise of Corbyn has reanimated London’s comedy scene. First we had Rupert Myers and Bobby Friedman’s Corbyn: the musical. Now ‘A View from Islington North’ graces the stage at the West End’s Arts Theatre. It carries five sketches in total, taking aim at some of politics’ most senior figures.
Subjects range from a mother wrestling with the news of her son’s death on active service, a behind-the-scenes take on being a party whip and a piece on the infiltration of capitalist terms in modern day parlance. These have all been performed in theatres before, and so it is two new skits that take centre stage.
The Accidental Leader by Alistair Beaton recounts a disgruntled Labour backbencher coordinating frontbench resignations to overthrow his party’s leader. The rebels are fuming at a recent snub to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, as the rebel MP (played by Bruce Alexander) laments that his leader “can’t stop being a protestor” while his lackey Ollie (played by Joseph Prowen) criticises the party steward’s “maths teacher” attire.
The coup, which is picked up by the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg, we are told, is foiled by a member of grassroots movement ‘Impetuous’. Sounding familiar? The skit then plays out disagreements over the Syria vote and the use of the press to bring down this unknown head of the party. It is the politics of hope versus the politics of pragmatism, a debate well-trodden in Labour circles in recent months.
Its resonance is undeniable but a nuanced point it does not make. It leaves with the thought that while “chaos with hope” is more attractive than outright rationality, as an acquiescent shadow minister expresses it, whether you can win from a left-wing principled platform is questionable. Though often amusing the point the sketch is getting at adds nothing new to the debate.
This leads us to the best segment of the evening: Ayn Rand Takes a Stand by David Hare. Here we see a conflicted Gideon Osborne (played by Steve Shepherd) in conversation with the Russian pro-free everything author, Ayn Rand, brilliantly portrayed by Ann Mitchell, who later tries to confront Theresa May on immigration and her inherently contradictive conservatism (“how can you have a free market without free movement of labour?”). Singling out May’s crackdown on free speech and rhetoric on controlling Britain’s borders, juxtaposed with her free market zeal, is by far and away the most effective satire of the evening.
It also lands some weighty blows on the need for Britain not to turn away from its responsibilities to those fleeing destitution across the Middle East, and highlights the UK’s proud history of providing sanctuary to the oppressed or groups in need.
But one of the unbridled joys of the Thick of It and other famous British satires is being pretty certain of which Westminster types or stories the characters are supposed to be portraying, without it ever being disclosed. When that fourth wall is broken by naming the figures of ridicule and using direct comparisons to current news stories, the satire often becomes too obvious, lacks subtlety, impact or originality.
That said, the performances are strong and the hour and 45 minute production whistles by. But if you’re after incisive, biting satire, stick to the classics.