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Theatre503 On ... Rehearsing Politics for The Charming Man

"It’s a common misconception that life isn’t funny even when it’s tragic, even when you’re in terrible situations funny stuff still happens and it makes it more moving." Gabriel Bisset-Smith grins earnestly and I can’t help but grin back because it rings so true. As a Nation in the thralls of a Comprehensive Spending Review so drastic that to call it a terrible situation seems like an understatement, it feels the only thing one can do is laugh. But as the West End seeks solace in a nostalgic representation of political ridicule with Yes, Prime Minister, Theatre503 is heading up a season of playful contemporary satire, beginning with Bisset-Smith’s The Charming Man.

Inspired in part by the change brought by Barack Obama but set in the future it documents the rise to power of a black youth worker whose integrity becomes polluted by a messy political world; is change possible within this immoral quagmire? "The most important thing The Charming Man is asking us is what kind of leader we most respond to’ director Paul Robinson explains: "the central question is do we want someone of integrity or do we want someone who is popular and can we tell the difference between the two."

Whilst they not trying to do a Have I Got News For You, constant re-writes throughout the rehearsal process mean it is as up-to-the-minute as you can get ("It’s really exciting to go home and watch the news and think oh maybe I can work in something about the Milibands"). But won’t something so linked to the ‘now’ age badly? It’s a concern that Bisset-Smith is remarkably candid about ‘When you write you wanna write stuff that you think they will be performed for years! You think…this is going to be my View From The Bridge and with this... they can’t do this play in 2015, it is just for now... that’s a bit scary because as a writer its quite a lot to invest."

Far from being depressed by the idea that his play could be tomorrow’s fish and chip paper Bisset-Smith seems to find the whole thing exhilarating. Robinson agrees; "I think too often with theatre you do switch on a slightly more erudite or sort of aspirational side of your head that is a generalised part ... I’m really excited about people walking in (and) being really engaged with something that’s current and saying "I’ve just come from out there and from reading the metro and this is about that."

Much like the political world it reflects, the process of commissioning, rehearsing and producing this play has been a whirlwind one, essentially taking place over just two months. Complete strangers initially, they appear fast friends now having worked closely throughout the rehearsal process ("It’s been a crash course in rehearsal politics!" Bisset-Smith confesses) and it is a collaboration that seems to come from a genuinely shared artistic understanding.

But for all their earnestness the smooth world of politics does seem to have rubbed off on them; "In some ways the play is our candidate for election and we’re going 'Will they vote for it... does this hold up?' I feel like we’ve been grooming a candidate and trying to get him to say the right thing and we are the spin doctors behind it." Whilst Robinson chuckles, Bisset-Smith grins again like a charming candidate himself, beaming at me and I can’t help but grin back.

The Charming Man opened at Theatre503 on 22 October (previews from 19 October) and continues until 13 November 2010.

- Honour Bayes


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