Newest Review: ... 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 o... more
New Statesman, New Labour, same old B'stard!
The New Statesman (Opera House, Manchester)
Member Name: SWSt
The New Statesman (Opera House, Manchester)
Date: 30/06/06, updated on 24/07/06 (1358 review reads)
Advantages: Funny, Rik Mayall is brilliant, good script at times
Disadvantages: Poor support actors, lame script at times, lots of bad language
Back in the 1980s, Rik Mayall played Alan Bístard, the sleaziest, most ambitious and manipulative MP in the House of Commons. Seeing the way the wind was blowing, Bístard defected to New Labour and is once again calling the shots at the heart of government in this new stage play.
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 Centreís 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.
As itís a stage show, the cast is necessarily small Ė limited to 3 main characters, with a number of other characters popping up every so often. Rik Mayall, of course, is Alan Bístard 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 Ė there are about three scenes he is not in Ė and itís a credit to him that whenever heís offstage, you feel youíre just killing time until his return.
Also worthy of note is Marsha Fitzalan, returning as Bístardís estranged wife, Sarah, still scheming how she can get hold of her husbandís money. The interplay between Bístard and his wife is as strong as ever. Similar, the cattiness between Sarah and Flora (Alanís would-be lover) is hilarious and itís a shame that the writers didnít 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 Bístard 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) Ė a northern, staunch Old Labour-type forced to work as Alanís aide. Sadly, Hayward is not that great an actor and his relationship with Bístard (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 Ė particularly when sending up the insular nature of many Americans (sheís 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. Iím 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 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 ďspecial relationshipĒ with the US and the situation in Iraq. However, here lies the first of the playís 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 Ė 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 Prescottís affair, for example) which helps add to the sense of realism. Iím not saying the script isnít funny Ė it is Ė itís 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 Bístardís ďI donít careĒ attitude. However, at several points during the evening, there were audible gasps from the audience as if to say ďdid he REALLY just say what I think he said?Ē
Humour-wise, itís pretty wide-ranging Ė 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 itís 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 Mayallís show (and rightly so!)
The script is also littered with bad language. This actually gives rise to one of the playís funniest moments (an expletive-ridden Bístard rant, blissfully unaware that the Queen is listening in on the phone!) Ė funny for both the execution and Mayallís OTT and hammy acting when Bístard realises his error. However, whilst Iím 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 Mayallís over the top performances will find plenty to enjoy here. Itís 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)
Summary: A welcome return for B'stard, just not quite as good as it thinks