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  The Theatreguide.London Review


Playing With Fire
Olivier Theatre Autumn 2005

This is a pretty lousy play. That's strong language, but when a writer of some stature, such as David Edgar, delivers a work this poor, he deserves it. I have almost nothing positive to say about this overlong, clumsy, shapeless, and ultimately offensive play.

Edgar's subject is local government. A particularly ill-run and mildly corrupt town council is warned by London to shape up or be taken over by the central government under sweeping new reform powers. A female trouble-shooter is sent north to help them put their affairs in order - balance the budget, provide better services for minorities, and the like - and only succeeds in messing things up so completely that one of the few reasonable men on the council becomes a racist demagogue and the town is torn by race riots.

So what's so bad about it? The most offensive thing is Edgar's smug, safe cynicism. From the distance of the superior observer, the play takes an almost palpable delight in its pessimistic message - leave them alone and they'll screw things up, try to help and you'll screw things up. The situation is hopeless, and aren't we fortunate and blessed to be able to sit here at our comfortable distance (geographical, cultural, economic - you might as well say it out loud: class) and look down on those foolish enough to actually be trying to do something?

Well, writers have every right to be offensive. Some might argue that they have less right to be bad writers. The play's dramaturgy is clunky in the extreme. It runs nearly three hours, when nearly a third could have been cut to its advantage. (There's nothing inherently wrong with long plays. There is if you are made aware of the length and if you find yourself editing - we didn't need that scene, this could have been said more efficiently, who cares about these characters, etc. - as it goes along.)

There is a particularly clumsy flash-forward and then flash-back-again in the second half, and Edgar repeatedly can only manoeuver his way through scene changes with narration by one character or another. Even the setting represents lazy playwriting - there is no reason for the town to be in the north of England except that this makes the locals automatically funny, with the British equivalent of hillbilly accents.

The characters are almost all just stereotypes, and his few attempts to round them out fail, as when he resorts to the hoariest of cliches, giving the woman from London a dangerous and doomed romance with the one young, sensible, Asian member of the council.

Michael Attenborough directs with a stolid rhythmlessness that forces us to plod drearily from scene to scene, and nobody in the large cast gets away with much dignity intact, though David Troughton, playing a total cliche, the Northern local politician with native good sense who might actually have been able to salvage things if they had left him alone, comes closest.

 Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Playing With Fire - National 2005