If You Don't Let Us Dream, We Won't Let You Sleep
Well, it makes a change: a flat-out protest play that recalls the days of 1970s agitprop so cosily referenced in the musical Billy Elliot. Performed on a bare, scaffolded stage, and written by a 36 year-old career activist, Anders Lustgarten, the play starts with a group of do-gooding capitalists working out how best to rip off the social services by issuing Unity bonds. Up the workers!
Lustgarten, the son of American academics who took a degree in Chinese Studies at Oxford, and who came to attention with a couple of plays at the Finborough, has thought long and deep about public services and political responsibility, and it would be wrong to dismiss this eighty-minute, cleverly interwoven “tirade” as self-indulgent liberalism. It’s not woolly and it’s not cheaply anarchic.
My complaint is that it’s not densely written enough, and it lacks any governing theatrical dynamic. A few ironic clashes engineered between the characters launching a public show trial – of whom, exactly; the bankers? George Osborne? Maynard Keynes? – in a squat led by Meera Syal’s unlikely middle-aged protester with a head wound are not really enough for a theatrical event.
There’s the impoverished retired nurse (Susan Brown) who can’t pay her electricity out of her pension; the reformed revolutionary lay-about (Daniel Kendrick) who was in the pub when a shocking racist attack was committed against the pot boy (Lucian Msamati) – this is the strongest scene in the play, almost classic Edward Bond in its taunting of the audience through its own liberal response - who now turns up as a Health and Safety officer with powers of eviction.
The Occupy London encampment and the Tottenham riots are the cultural lodestones for this play, not the works of other playwrights, and this lends it freshness and a direct appeal that should contribute to a debate beyond the confines of the Court’s downstairs bar.
But there are too many loose ends, for instance in the reference in a dialogue between two schoolteachers to the father of an abandoned girl who happens to have been fitting the nurse’s tax debt meter earlier on.
A quick glance at the printed text shows that lots of rhetorical speeches have been scythed down, and the arguments of the last scene are simply piled up as way of enlightening the most educated (well, he went to Cambridge), and therefore most clueless, of the squatters.
Still, I like the cut of Lustgarten’s jib, the tiger in his tank, and he’ll be saying a lot of things that haven’t been heard in our theatre for a long time. He could even be lining himself up as the first genuinely intellectual left-wing dramatist since Trevor Griffiths and David Edgar.
Director Simon Godwin gives him a pretty good cast – there’s lovely work by Laura Elphinstone in a variety of roles, and by Filter Theatre’s Ferdy Roberts as a banker in red braces called James Asset-Smith and the no less delightfully named activist, Zebedee.