The New Statesman @ Opera House, Manchester

cast list
Rik Mayall
Marsha Fitzalan
Clive Hayward
Helen Baker
Alexandra Gunn

directed by
Jennie Darnall
After Margaret Thatcher, it’s arguable that the most famous Conservative politician of the late 80s was a fictional one. Alan B’stard seemed to embody most of the values associated with the Tories at that time – arrogant, corrupt, self-serving, extremely right-wing and prepared to do absolutely anything to cling to power.

These days of course, those very same characteristics are also associated with New Labour, so it seems only appropriate that the stage revival of the ITV political sitcom The New Statesman sees B’stard crossing the floor to join the present Government.

B’stard is now in charge of the fictional 9 Downing Street, accompanied by sidekick Frank (a stalwart of Old Labour), and an archetypal ‘Blair Babe’, the Prime Minister’s political advisor Flora. In the course of just under 2 hours, he manages to persuade Condeleeza Rice to invade Norway, engineer the kidnapping of Tony Blair, set Gordon Brown up in a bizarre sex and drugs scandal and bomb the BBC – all for his own nefarious ends of course.

In these days of subtle and cutting programmes like Armando Iannucci’s brilliant The Thick Of It, it’s debatable whether The New Statesman can even be dubbed political satire. Besides, the seemingly final days of the Blair administration have been marked by events that are simply beyond parody anyway. Thankfully, writers Lawrence Marks and Maurice Gran avoid becoming too dated by sticking to what made The New Statesman so watchable on television – outrageous plots and playing up to Rik Mayall’s genius for physical comedy.

For Mayall is the undoubted star of the show here. For all the supporting cast’s good work – and both Helen Baker and Clive Hayward as Flora and Frank respectively are excellent – Mayall dominates the performance. Delivering his lines with relish and showing the comic timing of a true master, Mayall’s obviously having the time of his life here. He can reduce the audience to hysterics with just a facial expression or a shake of the leg.

As you’d expect from a Marks & Gran script, the play is peppered with one-liners which, more often than not, hit the mark. There’s possibly a few too many references to B’stard’s tendency for premature ejaculation, but there are well aimed and topical barbs at admittedly easy targets such as John Prescott, David Blunkett, US foreign policy and the BBC (the latter produced one of the biggest laughs of the night when Mayall did a stage wink at the audience after the line “the BBC doesn’t care about talent anymore”).

Mayall also indulges his gift for ad-libbing, particularly in a scene where Condeleeza Rice, played by Alexandra Gunn, grabs B’stard’s groin. “I get paid for this you know”, leered Mayall at the audience while flicking V-signs, nearly making Gunn ‘corpse up’ in the process.

It’s all very silly indeed, but it’s tremendous knockabout fun. It’s never going to win any prizes for subtlety – razor sharp political satire it certainly isn’t. However, Mayall’s performance and the witty script save this from becoming what could have been an embarrassing, tired old retread and is well worth catching on its current mammoth tour around the country.

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