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The New Statesman (Opera House, Manchester)

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1 Review

Meet Alan B'Stard, impeccably pin-striped, nose aloft, stalking the corridors of power leaving a trail of destruction in his wake. It's a political system with more spin that cruple. Will B'Stard - the most depraved and selfish politician of all time - still be in Blair's caring New Labour government? Will he find the weapons of mass destruction. Why is Condolezza Rice in and out of Alan's back door? How did Alan B'Stard get in to the Labour party? Is anybody safe?

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      30.06.2006 20:32
      Very helpful



      A welcome return for B'stard, just not quite as good as it thinks

      Back in the 1980s, Rik Mayall played Alan B’stard, the sleaziest, most ambitious and manipulative MP in the House of Commons. Seeing the way the wind was blowing, B’stard defected to New Labour and is once again calling the shots at the heart of government in this new stage play.

      The Venue
      First of all, a quick word about the venue. I saw this play at the Opera House in Manchester. The Opera House is just off Deansgate, one of Manchester City Centre’s main streets and is pretty easy to find. The problem, as with many city centre venues, is parking. The official Opera House car park is quite small and, at the moment, is even smaller, due to some nearby building work. We followed the signs to the car park on King Street and, having driven in, were advised that the charges were 80p for every 15 MINUTES! Needless to say, we drove out again straight away! We then went to another car park, which was about a 15 minute walk back to the theatre. So, be warned, either arrive very early, or leave yourself plenty of time to get parked up!

      The theatre itself is very pleasant. It opens up directly onto the street, so there is a nice, bright, airy and vibrant feel to it. The auditorium is quite compact and seemed to offer a good view of the stage from pretty much anywhere. We were seated 3 rows from the front and right in the centre of the stage, so had great seats. The only problem I could see is that at the very front, the seats are not tiered, so you are more or less on the same level as the row in front of you. This can be a problem if you get someone taller in front (as I did) as their head can block your view, meaning you have to constantly move to in your seat to be able to see the stage.

      The Cast
      As it’s a stage show, the cast is necessarily small – limited to 3 main characters, with a number of other characters popping up every so often. Rik Mayall, of course, is Alan B’stard a man who has not changed his ways since we last saw him, and is still looking for ways to obtain both money and power. Rik Mayall is, simply superb. This is a man who knows how to work a live audience! His sense of comic timing is perfect and he knows exactly how many laughs he can ring out of a particular gag or by pulling a silly face. Even when corpsing (self-inflicted because he was trying to throw another cast member), Mayall was brilliant, coming out of character to flick Vs at the audience. I know it may not sound very funny, but if you were there, it was! Mayall holds the entire show together. Without him, it would be a bit of a weak political satire. Mayall is centre stage for most of the show – there are about three scenes he is not in – and it’s a credit to him that whenever he’s offstage, you feel you’re just killing time until his return.

      Also worthy of note is Marsha Fitzalan, returning as B’stard’s estranged wife, Sarah, still scheming how she can get hold of her husband’s money. The interplay between B’stard and his wife is as strong as ever. Similar, the cattiness between Sarah and Flora (Alan’s would-be lover) is hilarious and it’s a shame that the writers didn’t develop this aspect more.

      Disappointingly. Michael Troughton does not re-appear as Piers Fletcher Dervish, and this is the first real weakness of the show. The exploitation of the dim, but loyal Piers and his horrendous treatment by B’stard was one of the key features of the TV show, and its absence leaves a real hole. This is a hole that the writers try to fill by creating the character of Frank (Clive Hayward) – a northern, staunch Old Labour-type forced to work as Alan’s aide. Sadly, Hayward is not that great an actor and his relationship with B’stard (in particular the reason he stays with Alan) is unconvincing and the spark is just not there.

      Helen Baker is equally annoying as new Labour MP Flora . Her performance would not be out of place in an amateur dramatics show, although as mentioned above, she shows great promise when given the chance to get catty with Sarah. Alexandra Gunn, in an underwritten and underused role as Condoleeza Rice is quite good – particularly when sending up the insular nature of many Americans (she’s never heard of Norway, for example). Finally, there is Kamaal Hussain as Mr Habibi, who is about as stereotypical an Arab character as you could get. I’m still trying to decide whether, in fact, this was a satirical swipe at the way Arabs are portrayed in the west, or whether it was just lazy writing.

      Thankfully, though, as I said above, Rik Mayall saves the day with a fantastic central performance.

      The Play
      The play was written by Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, who wrote the original TV series, so things look promising here. It takes a satirical look at New Labour and its rise to power, the “special relationship” with the US and the situation in Iraq. However, here lies the first of the play’s weaknesses. Each TV episode of the New Statesman was 30 minutes long, so however ludicrous the plot, it zipped along and you never really had time to think about it. The play, of course, is longer, with a running time of 90 minutes (plus a half hour interval). This means the plot, inevitably, has to be more complicated. The trouble is that it feels unnecessarily convoluted and strung out – as though its been over-extended purely to ensure it offers value for money.

      Similarly, much of the satire is a little blunt, with pops at easy targets (disgraced cabinet ministers, stupid US presidents, gung-ho American militarists etc.) In fairness, the script has clearly also had a couple of additional bits inserted to make it more topical (references to John Prescott’s affair, for example) which helps add to the sense of realism. I’m not saying the script isn’t funny – it is – it’s just not as clever or satirical as it likes to think it is.

      Some of the humour also sails very close to the wind and is borderline offensive. It just about gets away with it, as it fits in with B’stard’s “I don’t care” attitude. However, at several points during the evening, there were audible gasps from the audience as if to say “did he REALLY just say what I think he said?”

      Humour-wise, it’s pretty wide-ranging – from toilet/sex gags through to political satire, so there should be something for everyone. Much of the humorous lines are delivered by Mayall and Fitzalan, and it’s great to see them working together and sparking off each other again. Most of the other characters are limited to occasional topical references. The message is clear: this is Mayall’s show (and rightly so!)

      The script is also littered with bad language. This actually gives rise to one of the play’s funniest moments (an expletive-ridden B’stard rant, blissfully unaware that the Queen is listening in on the phone!) – funny for both the execution and Mayall’s OTT and hammy acting when B’stard realises his error. However, whilst I’m certainly no prude, much of the bad language was pretty unnecessary and seem to have been inserted purely because the scriptwriters have a little bit more freedom for such things than they had in the TV series.

      The final problem is that the play feels a little stagebound and is limited to one location (Number 9 Downing Street) throughout. Even though the TV series was often limited to just a few locations, this at least added a bit of variety. Obviously, this is one of the limitations of a stage play, but it would perhaps have been better if Act II could have taken place in a different location to Act I.

      I guess whether you enjoy this will depend on whether or not you like Rik Mayall. People who hated The Young Ones, Bottom, or the New Statesman TV series should steer well clear. People who enjoy Mayall’s over the top performances will find plenty to enjoy here. It’s neither as sharp or satirical as it likes to think it is, but it has a fantastically delivered and brilliantly timed central performance from Mayall.

      The show is about to move to Glasgow, before several dates in Milton Keynes, with the final performance there at the end of July. Tickets can be bought from Ticketmaster (http://www.ticketmaster.co.uk)



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