The Playground Theatre, London ****
Within a stone’s throw of Grenfell Tower, Gregory Evans’ tale of greed, ambition and plain heartlessness, Shirleymander tells the darkest of stories with a very light touch. The levity, however, can’t conceal the ugly underbelly of appalling housing policies that 30 years on from the scandal that rocked Westminster City Council’s former Tory leader, Dame Shirley Porter, found an even more catastrophic mirror in Kensington & Chelsea a year ago.
Full marks then to newcomers The Playground Theatre, set up at the end of last year and artistic director Anthony Biggs for starting off with this British stage premiere of Gregory Evans’ 2009 radio play and for recognising the parallels of the Grenfell disaster with Porter’s criminal gerrymandering policies, an attempt by her to retain Tory power at any cost.
For Porter, the daughter of Tesco founder, Sir Jack Cohen, winning was everything, according to this account from Evans and inspired by journalist Andrew Hosken’s’ original portrait of the terrible affair, Nothing Like a Dame.
Close to losing Westminster, Porter saw danger coming from marginal wards and in them, the poorest, possibly Labour voters. So, amongst other things – selling off cemeteries for 15p – she set about removing these undesirables, decanting them into other safer wards or beyond.
Evans presents Porter in this account as a sartorial force of nature, with an ever-changing array of shoulder-padded, power jackets, skirts and colourful shoes. Jessica Martin rises to the occasion. A remarkable lookalike, she turns in a performance of comic energy and hubris that would have outshone Margaret Thatcher, had her political contemporary and Prime Minister been granted stage time.
But here, it’s all about Shirley, an uncomfortable mix of go-getting termagent, shopkeeper (constituents are known as `customers’) and political showgirl. We also get cameos of her father, Jack, her ageing husband, Leslie (both played by the estimable Jack Klaff) and sundry council apparatchiks, all portrayed by a small but tireless cast in a dizzy merry-go-round of shedding and adopting various characters.
Porter was eventually brought to heel by the District Auditor and council officials finally acquiring some kind of moral conscience and realising that the sell-offs, the skulduggery and obsessive paranoia should actually be stopped.
It’s a portrait all too familiar with those who know their Shakespeare `monsters’ such as Richard III, Macbeth etc and today’s Trumpism. In the end, this though it’s also a sober reminder of how subordinates allow themselves to be cowed into collusion out of fear and cowardice.
As for the Leader herself, in a short coda, she proclaims she had `no regrets, none at all’.
Played as a quasi-jolly escapade, Anthony Biggs’s production keeps up a fast tempo adding familiar songs tracks from the ‘80s. That and Evans’ careful detailing of Porter’s antagonism to socialism is also a reminder of just how heavily divisive those times were between extreme Left and Right. Sadly, no different from now, really, when you come to think of it.
An encounter then with the recent past that tells us a lot about ourselves now, albeit with a beguilingly bright and smiling face. Don’t be deceived. Rotten to the core.
Shirleymander by Gregory Evans
Cast: Leader Dame Shirley Porter: Jessica Martin
Photographer, Council officer, Labour councillor, Interviewer 2: Omar Baroud Father, Interviewer, District Auditor, Teller: James Horne
Deputy, Husband, Chairman of Tesco: Jack Klaff
Chief Executive, Technician, Dresser: George Potts
Wet, QC, Doctor: Amanda Waggott
Director: Anthony Biggs
Assistant Director: Francesca Tennant
Designer: Gregor Donnelly
Choreographer: Lily Howkins
Lighting: Sherry Coenen
Sound: Yvonne Gilbert
Assistant Costume Designer: Joanna MacDonald
Shirley’s hair designed by: Richard Mawbey, Wig Specialities
Executive Producer: Amanda Waggott
First perf of the British stage premiere of Shirleymander at The Playground Theatre, London, May 23, 2018
Based on BBC journalist Andrew Hosken’s book Nothing Like A Dame and first presented as a radio play in 2009.
Review first published on this site, Mar 27, 2018