Tim Luscombe’s new play at Hampstead Theatre is a difficult pitch. A decades-spanning account of the history of European unity with a specific focus on EU fishing policies – it sounds, at best, rather dry and daunting. And yet Luscombe’s passion for his chosen subject is so unavoidable that it’s very difficult not to become infected. Even if The Schuman Plan is ultimately too unwieldy to satisfy as a piece of drama, what it has to say is engaging.
Luscombe has said that he originally hoped to cram an entire half century of European history onto the stage. Reality has prevailed however and he’s managed to pare things down to a – still pretty ambitious – eighteen characters played by a company of five. The play is no less structurally elaborate, the narrative switching nimbly between decades, jumping from the corridors of Whitehall to the fields of rural Sicily.
The Schuman Plan kicks off with a highly unnecessary poetic prologue about the mythic birth of the continent, but from then on things proceed in a more naturalistic manner. The thread that holds this all together is Bill (skilfully played by Robert Hands); the idealistic son of a Suffolk fishing family, he sheds his accent after the War and becomes a Whitehall civil servant. Initially impassioned about all things European, he despairs of Clement Atlee’s dismissal of Jean Monnet’s plans for a united Europe, but as the years pass, and he works first for the Common Agricultural Policy and then for MAFF (the ministry for agriculture, fisheries and food), he becomes more and more disillusioned.
The small cast do a commendable job in very demanding roles – not only do they have multiple characters to portray but a vast range of accents are required and there are even large chunks of dialogue that need to be delivered in Italian. To their credit few false notes are struck and Simon Robson is particularly commanding, playing, amongst others, the former British PM Ted Heath. Robert Hands too makes the, no less challenging task, of playing Bill over a seventy year period seem impressively effortless.
Director Anthony Clark has done his best to stop this descending into a heavy-handed history lesson, but unfortunately the injected elements of human drama don’t always succeed. A sprinkling of unrequited love and a highly predictable tragic denouement just end up feeling forced. The most diverting episodes concern the fabricated friendship between Bill and the late Heath, it’s a shame these weren’t developed further.
This is not virgin territory for Luscombe but, though as a dramatist his desire to counter simplistic, xenophobic attitudes is evident, this play is neither polemic nor paean. The Schuman Plan exudes a desire to educate, to inform about events that have shaped our lives and yet go forgotten by the vast majority of the British public. And yet he’s produced an admirably balanced work. It’s too long, certainly – the first half especially is a bit of a slog – and it would have benefited from more of the off-centre humour displayed in the Italian episode, but it has a combination of social relevance and chutzpah that few other new plays manage.