Pleasance Beyond, Edinburgh

The Pleasance Beyond is packed: the cast’s pedigree or the subject matter or a combination of the two mean that the three-hundred-plus seats have all been sold. Which is great, obviously, but also… hot. It’s a muggy day, so we thank our lucky stars we remembered to bring bottles of cold water, and hope the play is worth it.

It is. Hurrah! I’m not sure at first: there’s an air conditioning unit running, and it’s swallowing the sound a bit, so I have to strain to hear, and it’s a wordy piece, so it matters; I need to catch the nuances. But I get used to it, and am soon drawn in, enjoying the intrigue and barbed repartee.

We’re in the near future – a year or two hence – and Adam Masters (Timothy Bentinck) has just been elected as our new Prime Minister. He’s inherited the Brexit stalemate, trying to tread a line between opposing factions in his cabinet, his main aim being to do nothing, to ride out the status quo. Adam’s best friend and advisor, Paul Connell (Mike McShane), slyly suggests allocating key roles in the negotiations to arch rivals Simon Cavendish (Hal Cruttenden) and Diana Purdy (Pippa Evans), forcing them to work together, appeasing both the right and left wing commentariat. Chief EU negotiator Helena Brandt (Jo Caulfield) looks on in disbelief as the British government ties itself in knots, kiboshing every idea Adam presents with acerbic ripostes.

Adam’s strategy – using his inaction to force others to act – is bound to end in disaster. And as the inevitable betrayal approaches, he becomes increasingly desperate.

Although Brexit is billed as a comedy – and there are plenty of laughs along the way – it’s actually quite a serious piece. It’s a smart move to cast comedians in the supporting roles – so that Adam is isolated, alone, facing an onslaught of expertly timed quips and snide putdowns. The performances are uniformly strong – Jo Caulfield is a real revelation, and we love her middle-European accent, which is subtle enough to avoid parody.

The staging is simple: a fixed set representing a series of offices, some neat cross-cutting highlighting the cut-throat nature of events. I feel for the actors in their three piece suits and formal dresses (especially Mike McShane, who seems to be wearing clothes he’s borrowed from a much larger man – or perhaps they were his, several sizes ago); luckily, the characters are supposed to be stressed and sweaty, so their shiny faces don’t seem out of place.

Sadly, the story is just too prescient; I can believe every word of it. It’s Shakespearean in its exposure of human frailty and brutality – and sobering in the extreme. Still, it’s definitely one to watch. Et tu, Boris?

4 stars

Susan Singfield

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