A View From Islington North (Arts Theatre)
Out of Joint present an evening of short plays by the likes of Caryl Churchill, David Hare and Mark Ravenhill
Out Of Joint's bracingly satirical new offering, the title being a reference both to the location of the theatre company's HQ and to Jeremy Corbyn's Labour constituency, is an anthology of scenes and vignettes by a quintet of the UK's finest living playwrights. Although there is no through-line between the five pieces, they combine to paint a bleakly humorous picture of Britain today.
One could be forgiven for expecting an evening of all-out Tory-bashing but, while that indeed happens to a certain extent, the Labour Party also comes in for some scathing criticism. Taken as a whole, the show proves surprisingly even-handed in terms of the politics. It is also directed with skill and pace by Max Stafford-Clark, on an elegantly economical set by Tim Shortall. The majority of the acting is exceedingly fine.
The opener - Mark Ravenhill's The Mother, first seen as part of a bigger show at the Royal Court back in 2008, is the theatrical equivalent to a punch in the gut. A pair of soldiers trying to tell a working class mum that her son has been killed in combat are blocked at every turn by the mother's aggression and denial. In the title role, Sarah Alexander is at first abrasively brash before giving way to grief. If the writing seems a little clumsy in the way the principal character succeeds in breaking down the female soldier, Alexander's sobbing despair in the final moments is a haunting indictment of the human cost of combat.
Next up is Caryl Churchill's sketch Tickets are Now on Sale which inventively imagines an innocuous exchange between a middle class couple (Alexander again, barely recognisable, and Steve John Shepherd), repeated multiple times and pared down into corporate-speak, buzz phrases and brand names. The effect is funny but dislocating.
A pair of world premieres - and the meatiest parts of the show - are placed either side of the interval. Alistair Beaton's laugh-out-loud funny The Accidental Leader plays like an unusually foul-mouthed episode of Yes Minister as we see ambitious Labour politician Jim (Bruce Alexander, brilliant) trying to lead an internal revolution against an unnamed but entirely recognisable Party leader. Pettiness and treachery abound, to lacerating comic effect. Sarah Alexander completes an impressive hat-trick of performances as a brassy whistle-blower.
Best of the five is the new David Hare piece, Ayn Rand Takes a Stand which sees a wimpy George Osborne (a suitably vacillating Shepherd) and icy Theresa May (played with a wonderfully brittle quality by Jane Wymark) taken to task over the free market and prohibition of the movement of free labour by the fearsomely histrionic and self-serving Russian authoress/philosopher. Hare's writing is exquisite - playful, trenchant, frequently hilarious - and he is exceptionally well served by Ann Mitchell whose barnstormingly extravagant performance as Rand is the stuff that theatregoers' memories are made of.
The last segment is Stella Feehily's How to Get Ahead in Politics, a bitterly funny account of a Chief Whip (Bruce Alexander, sadly not quite on top of his lines on Press Night) giving Shepherd's drunken, feckless Tory MP his marching orders in the light of allegations of bullying and sexual harassment.
If the newly composed Billy Bragg political anthem finale "No Buddy No" feels a bit awkwardly tacked on, it is still very much in the same vein as the playlets that precede it, as well as being a useful way of getting the entire company back on stage together.
All in all, this is a fun but thought-provoking piece of theatre, likely to infuriate and entertain in equal measure, and Out Of Joint is to be congratulated on bringing to a West End stage the political Britain we live in right now. Recommended.
Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes, including interval.
A View from Islington North runs at the Arts Theatre until 2 July 2016.