It’s not every day that you see a contemporary new play with a cast of 23, nor yet one that costs the majority of the audience just £10 to see: the National Theatre’s annual Travelex £10 season continues to make good on its promise to make epic theatre that is financially accessible to all. And in concluding with David Edgar’s Playing with Fire, the season seeks to make theatre relevant to all as well.
In the slot occupied last year by David Hare’s Stuff Happens, Edgar’s play provides a localised corollary of the kind of religious tensions and racial factions that have led to the frightening destabilising forces behind 9/11 and our own 7/7, even though it's set before either event happened and was written in between the two.
Edgar's intentions are certainly admirable, but the result fatally lacks either theatrical drive or tension. While it briefly coheres at the beginning of the second act with a tribunal enquiry into the background of the riots that occurred in Bradford, Burnley and Oldham in 2001 that could have come straight out of one of the Tricycle’s tribunal plays, it lacks shape and characterisation elsewhere.
It offers its characters less as fully-fleshed individuals than as spokespeople for particular attitudes. And for much of the time its meandering plot could surely really only be of interest to those with a passion for the minutiae of local politics, as it follows a crusading civil servant (Emma Fielding) from the Deputy Prime Minister’s office who is parachuted in to sort out an under-performing local council.
As buzzwords and jargon such as SRB’s (single regeneration budget), “anti-social public space behaviours”, “best value obligations”, “racism awareness”, “performance indicators” and “customer delivery” are freely bandied about, you could be forgiven for thinking you were at a council marketing meeting, not a play.
Yet underneath, there are real questions being debated, about the failure of urban regeneration and the kind of council policies that lead communities to “self-segregate”; and how, as one character astutely points out, there’s harmony between the races only in the drugs trade.
Director Michael Attenborough - playing away from the Almeida that he runs to reunite with Edgar whose Pentecost and The Prisoner’s Dilemma he previously directed for the RSC - keeps the large Olivier stage animated with a constant flow of people that includes high-calibre actors like Fielding, Paul Bhattacharjee as the Labour councillor Fielding’s character falls for, and David Troughton, Oliver Ford Davies and Trevor Cooper as other local councillors.
- Mark Shenton