Scandaltown at the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre – review

Mike Bartlett’s new play

© Marc Brenner

It's bad luck for the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre, that their new Mike Bartlett play is the last of the trio of productions written by him that have opened in close succession. Following the stylish Cock, about modern sexual mores, and the coruscating The 47th, a drama in Shakespearean blank verse about the threat to democracy from authoritarianism, Scandaltown feels a touch underwhelming.

It's shaped as a pastiche of a Restoration comedy, and it is, in truth, extremely funny at times. But it is more like a pantomime or even a fairy tale than a sparkling satire. Its targets, all given the names that define character, are pretty soggy and predictable.

The plot pivots around Phoebe Virtue, an idealistic young thing, played with perfect, wide-eyed innocence by Cecilia Appiah, down from the north to save her brother Jack (Matthew Broome making his stage debut) from drink, drugs and non-woke, right-wing politics. They're embodied by Matt Eton (Richard Goulding), who shares qualities with both Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, but who undergoes a voyage of many different discoveries in the course of the play's progress.

Then there's a social media manipulator Hannah Tweetwell, and a cynical TV producer, on the look out for extreme opinion, Rosalind Double-Budget (whose name is naturally, pronounced as if it were French.) Oh, and a socially conscious philanthropist who made his name as a Dragon, and the desperate Lady Susan Climber, whose claim to fame is that she came third on The Apprentice. In 2015.

© Marc Brenner

Climber, in the inspired hands of Rachael Stirling, is the principle reason not to miss Scandaltown. She has the same capacity as her late and great mother Diana Rigg to provide a jolt of electricity to proceedings every time she is on stage, and her performance as this sad but determined fame-seeker, hair fiercely backcombed, eyes flashing for the next opportunity, is a wonder to watch, full of brilliant double-takes, sardonic asides and wry expressions of disappointment.

Around her, the action, on a set designed by the team Good Teeth with two-dimensional painted cloudscapes and heavy velvet backdrops, sometimes flags. Bartlett's writing is always clever and lively, and he hits his targets – it's the Netflix ball, the event of the season, where most of the characters end up having sex with the wrong partner. But the best jokes are quite gentle really: the smell of Lynx, the tendency of everyone down South to think of the North as "those blustery and monochrome lands". The funniest scene, where Lady Climber realises she has slept with the wrong man, is straight out of trouser-dropping farce.

Bartlett's broader targets – political hypocrisy, the corruption of society by its obsession with media, the lack of care of the old for the young, the young's tendency to see everything in absolute terms – are easy to hit. His ultimate plea, for people to try to be good and to listen to others, is exemplary but not exactly insightful.

However, there is a lot of pleasure to be had en route in Rachel O'Riordan's lively production, cleverly choreographed by Malik Nashad Sharpe. Simon Slater's music and Kinnetia Isidore's costumes mix the contemporary and the 17th century to striking effect. I smiled throughout; it's a sign of how high a bar Bartlett has set himself that I emerged vaguely disappointed.

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