Brexit | Play review by Steve Bennett at the King's Head, Islington
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Play review by Steve Bennett at the King's Head, Islington

Where DO they get their ideas? In Brexit, a newly installed Tory Prime Minister is hamstrung by the two wings of his party, trying to negotiate a path between gung-ho Leavers and prudent Remainers – while understanding that any course of action will leave the UK worse off than the status quo.

In real life, Brexit may be the biggest political drama in decades, but translating that to the stage has proved a tall order.  Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky’s play – is about inertia, that least dramatic of situations, as premier Adam Masters tries to delay the inevitable, keeping Britain in limbo rather than taking the plunge off the cliff edge.

Non-chess players will learn a new word: zugzwang, the position of having to make a move when the best position would be to pass. You might not know the term, but you’re an avid politics-watcher, especially a Remainer, you surely know all this. And if you’re not an avid politics-watcher, you won’t be going to a Fringe theatre play called Brexit.

It’s difficult for this piece which premiered at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe and now lands at the King’s Head pub theatre in North London –  to be a match for the daily machinations of Westminster. While slippery MPs - leadership hopefuls especially – can be duplicitous, conniving and opportunistic, the politicians here are binary, with no deep intrigue, or hidden motives, save one belated and slightly unconvincing bit of scheming attributed to Masters. 

Thom Tuck is Brexiteer Simon Cavendish – posh, out-of-touch, smarmy – and fellow comedian Jessica Fostekew  Diana Purdy, who favours the softest of Brexits, but is a fairly thinly-drawn character, her belief being all that defines her. The suggestion is that they are on each of the premier’s shoulders. One the angel, one the devil. Which is which depends on how you voted in June 2016.

The playwrights are also denied a decent ending, since it would be too much to expect them to come up with a resolution that has evaded politicians for so long. Along the way there’s plenty of speechifying, restating the situations with eloquence and an occasionally pithy or wry turn of phrase.

Despite its casting, and its billing, the show is not especially comic, and doesn’t bear up well to the inevitable comparison with Yes, Minister There are more laughs in a single one of Sir Humphry’s grandiloquent evasions than there are in this entire play. And using the same Mussorgsky music that The New Statesman had as its theme to evoke Parliamentary dignity is probably ill-advised

Brexit is redeemed a little by the casting and Salinsky’s efficient direction. David Benson – best known for his one-man shows about Kenneth Williams – makes a perfectly credible PM, apparently authoritative but adrift in a sea of doubt, and Adam Astill is well-cast as his frustrated key adviser. Comedy stalwart Margaret Cabourn-Smith rounds off the cast as the cold EU negotiator who’s withering about Britain’s options.

You’d have to be a pretty zealous Leaver not to take away a feeling of despair about Brexit, but this play hasn’t anything to add to the debate nor the understanding of what underpins it, even if it’s modestly entertaining in restating the bleedin' obvious.

Review date: 20 Jun 2019
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Kings Head Theatre

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