The Third Act
A sweet, white-haired old chap name
of Dimbleby stunned the audience before
the play had even begun by putting the
silliest imaginable question: 'Which of these
men would you like to be prime minister?'
Lady Smith, dismissing the party-pooping Alex Salmond's demand for the last of the leaders' debates to be blocked from Scottish screens, said that depriving us would be like missing the third act of a play. What her ladyship forgets is that third acts are often a thumping anti-climax. James Bridie, famously, could never write a good one; by then his characters were boring him and he longed to be free of them and on to another lot. There was something of the Bridie play about the third act in Birmingham last night.
With the whole of England at its disposal, Scotland and Wales having been ruled out on the grounds of our semi-detachment from the plot, the BBC somehow managed to find a venue with a dodgy acoustic and then installed psychedelic lighting so harsh that the three main characters looked like waxworks from Tussauds. Mr Cameron, with the beginnings of a small moustache attached, could easily have passed for one of those English cads in a B-movie, driving around Brighton in an open-topped racer, chasing the pretty girls.
The repetition of dialogue is death to any play, except if you are as clever as J B Priestley, who experimented with theories of time. We kept hearing not just the occasional line from previous acts, but whole chunks of familiar monologue, without Priestley's power to thrill.
Mr Cameron, for example, obviously has a thing about the staff massage room in the Department of Education in Whitehall. He sees it as an example of the wasteful public spending that the Tories will have to cut. But, having related in a previous act the horror of the staff massage room, he returned to the theme last night. He also repeated the story of the educational quangos costing, he claims, £300 million a year. Up here in the neglected north, that's small beer. NHS Education Scotland alone grabs £400 million a year. Get real, Dave.
Nick Clegg, who has a habit of ending up centre-stage, was convincingly cast as the romantic lead. But his dialogue, at first so appealing, had lost some of its freshness by the middle of the third act. Throughout the play, his main contribution was to pop up at regular intervals and declare in a winning way: 'Change! We must have change!' In the first act, everyone agreed.
Indeed 'I agree with Nick' entered theatrical lore as one of the great curtain lines of the modern British stage. But by the third act, no one was agreeing with Nick.
The play is set – I expect you know this already – in a crumbling mansion called UK House. None of the tenants on the adjoining estate wants to work, preferring to laze around in rent-free cottages watching reality television, while young, unappreciated foreigners cook the food and clean the house for a pittance. Oh, yes, it's positively Chekhovian.
Dave is the thrusting young accountant from Cameron and Osborne CA, sent in to look at the appalling state of the books and decide if anything can be done to save the family fortune. He and his pal George have already resolved to give the orchard the chop.
Nick, an idealistic second cousin no one knew existed, has arrived from nowhere determined to fight for the estate he believes is rightfully his. He is a fairly likeable cove, so endlessly indulged. He wishes to give the economically inactive on the estate an incentive to work.
Until something can be sorted out somehow, the house is being looked after by an ageing family retainer, Auld Broon, who wanders in and out of the drawing room muttering imprecations under his breath. 'Ridiculous, absolute disaster, who's responsible for this?'
'Well, you are, actually,' Cameron tells him in act two. 'I mean, it was you who built that extension with the massage room for the staff. It's all your fault.'
At this critical moment in the play, Auld Broon turns to Cameron, bares his teeth in a disconcerting manner, and utters the unforgettable line:
'I don't always get it right!'
He shuffles off upstairs, to a distant floor declared unsafe some years ago, where it is rumoured he keeps the bodies of all those members of the family who have crossed him. A man called Tony Blair, regular sort of guy, has been missing for some time; he is believed to be Old Broon's latest victim.
The ceiling shudders and there is a fall of dust on what remains of the silver.
'Volcanic?', quips Nick in a forlorn attempt to lighten the atmosphere.
Every week in the current production, there was a new narrator. Last night at the Birmingham Rep, someone we hadn't seen before, a sweet, white-haired old chap name of Dimbleby stunned the audience before the play had even begun by putting the silliest imaginable question: 'Which of these men would you like to be prime minister?'
There were gasps of incredulity from the stalls, howls of derision from the gods. Most people in the audience assumed that the Dimblebly person had taken leave of his senses. Unhappily not. At the end, the house lights came on and it was left to the hapless narrator to announce that all of us would be expected to return to our parishes and vote for one of these characters.
In accordance with theatrical tradition, the rest was silence.