A few years back, there was a theatre in London called the Whitehall. It was named after the street on which it stood, which in a nice touch of irony was also home to the offices of all the main government departments. The irony is that the Whitehall put on nothing but farces.
Many of these productions were written, produced or performed – and sometimes all three – by a goofy-looking fellow named Brian Rix. Some ran for years and years, always to packed houses. This gave rise to the expression ‘Whitehall Farce’.
Currently playing on the same street at a theatre called Westminster is a revival of the genre. It is called Brexit. For some months it has been playing nightly to braying audiences which squeal with delight or snort with disgust in more or less equal measure, as the plot – in so far as one can be discerned – unfolds. Or, as some critics would have it, disintegrates.
In the first scene, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, a portly Falstaffian figure of ready wit but uncertain dependability, is observed barracking his superior, the Prime Minister, Theresa May, a homely but virtuous woman from the counties, who had made the mistake of calling a general election and not doing well in it. Her real offence, though, as he quaintly puts it, is to have ‘cocked up’ the whole process whereby Britain plans to detach itself from membership of the European Union. She denies this and in polite terminology such as befits her middle-class up-bringing attacks him in turn for not being loyal. The play’s synopsis has made clear that he wants her job and will stop at nothing to get it.
The plot, in short, is afoot.
In the next scene, the Foreign Secretary is under fire from his colleague, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. In a later scene, their roles will be reversed. Clearly, they do not care for each other. Various other cabinet colleagues stride on stage at various times to offer support to one or the other. Confusingly, some of them seem to switch sides between appearances.
Just before the intermission, Conservative members of parliament are observed on stage in groups hatching, or demolishing, plots in favour of their favoured candidate for the succession – in case the Foreign Secretary, or indeed the Chancellor, should falter in his quest.
Throughout these proceedings the stage has been a confused and frantic place, with doors crashing open, legs disappearing out of windows, actors stumbling about as if unsure whether they are supposed to be on-stage or off, and if on, what they are supposed to be saying or doing. All the while, strange, unidentifiable crashing sounds have been heard in the background, as if rocks were being thrown through windows. This has added to the chaos.
The show, it occurs to this member of the audience, is an identifiably political version of Noises Off, Michael Frayn’s popular hit of a few years back, but with one perceivable difference: in Frayn’s piece the mayhem was cleverly contrived while in this new parody it is almost entirely accidental.
What are we, the audience, to make of it all, sitting comfortably in the darkness of the stalls, munching contentedly on our After Eight mints, not quite comprehending where the show is going?
The play’s the thing, someone whispers, pointlessly. Let’s just wait and see.
Now, the lights are dim again and the performance resumes.
A Johnson supporter bounds onto the stage. “She’s finished,” he declares loudly and angrily from the apron, spitting into the front row of seats. He means, of course, the prime minister. “She should go, and now!”
(In this brief exhortation the more alert members of the audience detect shades of the plot to get rid of an earlier and equally beleaguered prime minister, Margaret Thatcher.)
But support for such a drastic course of action is far from universal. “She must stand firm,” shouts a new messenger, a May sympathiser, striding purposefully on-stage from the wings. “Let the schemers do their worst, and then fire the lot of them, the bastards.”
(This echoes the advice given to the aforementioned Mrs. Thatcher by her shrinking band of stalwarts. Not to mention the famous depiction of his cabinet colleages by another former Prime Minister, John Major.)
Now, a narrator is heard explaining by way of background that the backstage noises heard earlier emanated from the British government throwing stones at the European Union for taking an unreasonable, that is to say punitive, posturing approach to the Brexit talks – calling them ‘negotiations’ at this point is something of a stretch, it seems – while the EU returns fire in kind by dismissing the British government as being in such a state of confusion as to be incapable of casually discussing, let alone seriously negotiating, anything.
Both sides may have just cause, or so the play’s narrator seems to be explaining, while also making the real point, which is that neither side has a solution.
A solution must of course be found, since all plays, even farces, must end with a descending curtain and a deserted stage.
Meanwhile, the audience seems to have divided between those who are still on the edge of their seats in anticipation of the last act, and those who vacated theirs at the interval to spend the rest of the evening in the pub next door.
As for me, I think I’ll stick with the play for a little while longer, though I must admit that a warm pub serving cold beer is starting to sound like the more attractive alternative.