The National Joke: a stereotype too far

Hot on the heels of two excellent plays, The National Joke is a decent play – but an avoidable flaw stands in the way of a hat trick.

The three women from The National Joke, staring at the sunPerhaps I’d set my expectations too high. At the start of this year, I’d seen one good play and one so-so play from Torben Betts prior to 2016, and then I saw two great plays earlier this year: his adaptation of Get Carter for Northern Stage, and the Original Theatre Company’s tour of earlier success Invincible. It was the latter play that gave me the most hope: Invincible was a comedy that sharply observed the attitudes some middle-class socialists hold of the real working class which was funny and astute without getting preachy. Work this magic on this play, this time set at the other end of a political spectrum, and there’s be every reason to believe this should be such a success.

And for the first three quarters of the play, I kept the faith. Out goes a grotty northern street and in comes the home of a Tory MP so extravagant it makes moat cleaning and duck islands look positively frugal. Still, that’s all so last decade. How Rupert St John-Green MP really stands to grab the public’s attention is a performance that could have been scripted by Andrew Mitchell himself. Taking a break from watching a solar eclipse in his home, he wanders on to the nearby beach and ends up giving a most, shall I say, “memorable” exchange with a group of disaffected constituents. Rupert of course strongly denied calling them “proles” – he insists he used nothing stronger than “oiks” – but luckily it’s been filmed and put on YouTube so that the entire country can make up their own minds.

Behind the latest piece of public entertainment, however, is the story of the three women in his house at the time: his second wife Olivia, her mother, and her daughter from the first marriage. An early clue that something’s not right is the way these three women barely know each other. Olivia’s mother is – or at least was when she had the chance – a controlling mother who drove her other two daughters to live on different continents, whilst Olivia’s own daughter is spoilt by her “fun” Australian father. As often is the case in Betts’s plays, there’s more than meets the eye. The mother’s controlling behaviour was borne out of a well-intentioned but misguided aspiration for her daughters to be successful women. The daughter’s story is somewhat scarier: she’s brought along her friend with benefits (or one true love, from his point of view), but what she’s failed to mention is that he used to be her counsellor who got her off the drugs Olivia knows nothing about. Worse, there’s a very really possibility that her irresponsible father will get her back on the drugs. It could even kill her.

But halfway though the second act, I found my faith waning, and to me the root problem is that Rupert is not a believable character. He’s as much of a stereotype of a Tory MP as Alan B’Stard, and that’s fine for sketch material, but you need something more substantial for a play. At the very least, we need to know why left-leaning Olivia is putting up with such an insufferable toff – we know that they were at the loose end of failing marriages (hers because of her irresponsible husband, his because of all the affairs), but there’s not really an explanation as to how this affair became a marriage. What we get instead is a rather contrived conversation between a sozzled MP and stepdaughter’s ex-lover where Betts shoehorns in his views on World War Two (dude, you did that last time) and how great Corbyn is (dude, a lot of us think Corbyn’s politics are the least of his problems), with a stereotypical Tory providing a convenient straw man. It wasn’t as bad as What Falls Apart when this dragged the play down to snail’s pace, but I still found myself rolling my eyes.

Now, stereotypes can work to good effect; after all, all four of the characters in Invincible were also stereotypes, and that didn’t stop that play being great. But there was a crucial difference: the stereotypes were all superficial, and the people beneath these masks were different. And, to be fair, I think this is what Torben Betts tried to do here. We get hints of the shame he feels for what he did to his first wife when he tries to pay off the aforementioned stepdaughter’s ex-lover to go back to his wife and kids, but other things are less effective. Towards the end, Olivia talks about how being brought up in a boarding school give men like Rupert a distorted outlook in life, but this is something that should be written into Rupert’s character, not just left for someone else to talk about it. Similarly, there’s hints that Rupert wants to be a respected champion of his constituents but doesn’t get it, but this too gets sidelined.

I’ve nothing to fault with the production though. This is the fourth play directed by Henry Bell at the SJT, and apart from one odd choice of set for Neville’s Island, I’ve been impressed with his productions. This continues his high standard, and I particularly liked the lighting effect in the greenhouse as the sun rose and set. The acting is also good, and Olivia’s heart-wrenching message to her daughter’s voicemail after she leaves without saying goodbye was a highlight of the play.

If there’s a reason to feel let down, it’s not so much what the play was, but what the play could have been. It’s a decent play that’s up to standard for an SJT summer programme, but it’s always frustrating when you know the writer is capable of something more. Good political theatre makes people think, but this play misses this opportunity and instead veers into telling people what to think. Still, I am comparing this play against very high standards of his best work, and against the expectations of the SJT’s new writing programme you won’t be disappointed. No, this does not have the impact of Invincible – and it’s a shame because it could have done – but it’s still worth working into a trip to Scarborough if you’re there.

The National Joke runs until the 20th August at the Stephen Joseph Theatre.

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