Scandaltown, Lyric Hammersmith, London.
Wine Glass (Champagne?) Rating…. 🍷🍷🍷🍷 (4 out of 5)
Aren’t these interesting times! Post lockdown, it feels like life is returning to normal. A bit like it might have been in the Restoration! Back then, the restoration of the Monarchy and a change of policy meant theatre was allowed to return once more. And now, after the lockdown, theatre is returning again.
Scandaltown is a brave and brilliant move to try and create a satire with our culture-war-infected British politics that pretty effectively sends up itself. It takes even more guts to do it in the style of a Restoration comedy, full of crossdressing, courtly language and creaking corsets.
I’ve not seen Mike Bartlett’s Cock. Apparently his Cock is in the West End. (Sorry. But it HAD to be said, didn’t it!) But I’d quite like to see his Cock after this experience! (Again… Matron!)
The plot is deliberately and brilliantly nonsensical: Phoebe Virtue (a great performance from the delightfully mannered Cecilia Appiah) is, as her name suggests, a pure-hearted member of Gen Z who is concerned for her twin brother Jack (Matthew Broome). He turns against fellow millennials and their “tyranny of virtue” to become something of a Byronic rake and heads to That London. The capital, just emerging from “a plague”, is a hedonistic, cynical place.
So she goes there, disguised as a man, to spy on him and save him from the mire of sex, drugs, and right-wing attitudes into which she fears he’s sunk.
Meanwhile, Lady Climber (a brilliantly funny Rachael Stirling) is trying to launch a political career in a world where getting cancelled is the surest way to land a telly breakfast show! Their stories collide at the Netflix masked ball, where identities are muddled and queer confusion abounds. It’s a bit like a panto but with more sex and politics. Alongside controversialist Lady Climber there’s Dennis Hedge, a working-class entrepreneur made good, caricatured Tory MP Matt Eton, and a smug TV exec, Rosalind Double-Budget (“DOO-blay BOO-zhay,” she corrects), whose virginal son wants to be the new Ken Loach. The rest of the younger guard are represented by a PR consultant with an axe to grind, an anti-capitalist waitress and a gay flatmate whose name, Freddie Peripheral, sets up a long-running gag.
Bartlett provides ample opportunity for baby boomers to smugly laugh at the foibles of their Gen Z kids, with swipes at eco-hypocrisy and moral puritanism. And he brilliantly takes aim at the ugliness of a government that horribly mismanaged the pandemic while treating the public like easily-distracted toddlers.
Scandaltown is a lot of fun and Bartlett has a knack for verse. He turns out Restoration-inspired insults like ‘quivering millennial quim’ for his characters to chuck at each other. There’s something really smart too about the way that the Regency obsession with virginity works with today’s quest for moral purity. Virtuous young Phoebe trembles in horror at the thought of buying something on Amazon! And it’s full of other nice gags too. Lady Climber is so posh she has a butler to swipe on Tindr for her.
There are some great performances, choreography and set, but it sags a bit after the interval and perhaps Rachel O’Riordan’s production is, if anything, a bit too ‘professional’; a bit too clean… it never descends into the level of boisterous mayhem this kind of satire perhaps really needs.
But it’s a great night out. And full chops to the Lyric Hammersmith in London for arranging free tickets for local residents and workers. That’s a huge statement worthy of Scandaltown in these cost-of-living-crisis times.