I thought it was a brave piece of programming – to stage a play about politics and open it a fortnight before the general election. Could we stomach any more political debate and commentary when the media has been full of little else over the last five weeks?
But this is Live Theatre, where the aim is to challenge and engage with the local audience, so What Falls Apart is the centrepiece in a whole series of linked events at Live Theatre that aim to move us away from such a jaundiced viewpoint and get us thinking about the impact of politics on our lives.
This is for me the central premise of What Falls Apart, which takes the dregs of an evening in a tired and battle weary politician’s life, and throws in characters who bring all the drama of their own lives into his. It’s a play about class and family and history and the long shadow of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the way that choices made long ago can come back and bite us.
Written by Torben Betts, directed by Max Roberts and with a cast of just three, the play opens in the 24 hour bar of a quayside hotel in Newcastle. Propped up against the bar is Tom Savage, a Labour politician who has had a heavy day on the hustings campaigning for a seat in the North East, where he’s usually been met by ‘hostility and indifference’ . It’s late, although not as late as the night before, and he is yet again in the process of finishing off a bottle of wine on his own, with only the barman for company.
The barman, played by Newcastle born Kevin Wathen, turns out to be a strangely mercurial figure – not formally educated, yet widely read, voracious for knowledge and with an astonishing memory for scraps of information, quotations and pub quiz ephemera. He is a witty, yet slightly menacing companion, who engages Tom in conversation that inevitably turns to political debate. Tom carries the guilt of having voted for the war in Iraq, very much against his principles and those of his socialist parents, and the scene is punctuated by brief reminders of Blair’s speeches, along with those of Tony Benn (a fierce opponent of the war). The writing is sharp and often funny, with the dialogue ripping along as Tom tries to drag himself away to his hotel room to get some sleep, while Gary, the barman, digs deeper and deeper into the seam of guilt and self-pity that Tom has indiscreetly revealed.
Just at the point at which Tom is finally up and off the bar stool, heading for the door, a strikingly attractive young woman makes an entrance, demanding brandy from the barman and urging Tom to join her for a night cap, as he is someone she says she hugely admires: a man of principle, a politician who espouses a socialist viewpoint and just the man to help the Labour Party to become more left wing. How can Tom refuse? She is beautiful, clever (an academic, it seems) and clearly interested in him; what harm could there be in one last drink?
Of course, we, the audience, know this will not end well; once Tom has eventually, and somewhat reluctantly, departed up to his room, our suspicions are confirmed. Venetia’s intentions are very far from those of an honourable admirer, and to make matters worse, Gary’s life, such as it is, has started to unravel badly. And he realises the truth about Venetia’s real motives for pursuing Tom so persistently.
At this point there’s an interval for a set change (very rare at Live), so we all get to congregate in the bar and discuss what’s going to happen next……and there’s plenty of speculation. The play‘s run at Live lasts until well after the election, so as you’re definitely going to see it I’m not going to spoil things by telling you what happens in Act Two! Suffice to say that the mood pitches deep into darkness as politics becomes a matter of life or death, as it did for so many when the political decision to invade Iraq was taken. We can no longer listen to the arguments and brush them aside by claiming they don’t affect us; What Falls Apart shows us that they have a very profound effect on people’s lives.
The play delights in language: the dialogue is fast, furious and by turns witty and terrifying; it’s brilliantly delivered by the cast of three, who make sure we, the audience, never miss a word of what’s being said. It invites us into a world made small by individual concerns, but with a much wider political sweep. The acting is tremendous, with Nigel Hastings creating a deeply believable politician whose heart is in the right place, but whose actions have betrayed him. Zannah Hodson is superb as the brittle, self-seeking Venetia, while Kevin Wathen’s performance as the barman is shockingly visceral. As ever, Max Roberts directs with feeling, insight and intelligence. My only criticism would be with the writing, which felt , on the night, a little unbalanced as the first and second acts were so different in pace and tone – on reflection I’m sure this is intentional, but as a member of the audience on the night, it felt a little disjointed.
So Live Theatre have done it again – confounded my expectations and reignited an interest in politics long buried under cynicism and boredom. I shall of course be voting on 9 May – but I shall do so with more insight and I hope, more conviction and understanding.
By Sarah Binns
Guest Theatre blogger for March & April