Brexit, by Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky
King’s Head Theatre, Islington
‘I’ll move Gavin to Justice and make him Lord Chancellor – he’ll love that – he’s got an O Level in Law!’ So says Conservative prime minister Adam Masters as he cynically juggles rival factions of his own party through double-dealing, media skulduggery and patronage.
Brexit, a comedy by one-time lawyer Robert Khan (now external affairs director at the Law Society) and his serial co-author Tom Salinsky, is set in the future. We are three years into what was meant to be a 20-month transitional period.
Masters (played by Timothy Bentinck aka David Archer from The Archers) is no Old Etonian, but shares a supposed trait of Etonians – that of being good at winning power, but unsure of why they want it, or what they intend to do with it. Six days into office, still dependent on the DUP, he tries to hire political comms veteran Paul Connell, and brings two backbench MPs, the ardently pro-Remain Diana Purdy and vehemently pro-Leave Simon Cavendish, into the Cabinet. Purdy is his new Brexit Secretary, while Cavendish is Trade.
There’s one remaining character – chic, sophisticated EU negotiator Helen Brandt (Lucy Montgomery of The IT Crowd, The Windsors), in the negotiation role filled in real life by Michel Barnier.
And so the parameters are set for a pacey 90-minute play. Archers fans may recall a scene during the referendum where David Archer tries to talk fellow farmer Adam Macy into voting ‘remain’ – but as Adam, Bentinck illuminates the task of promising each side their dearest wishes as a play for time in the hope that something turns up. ‘Wow. You’ve turned political ambiguity into a message from God,’ Paul observes.
The character of Simon, prone to spotting classical allusions where there are none, drawing heavily on Jacob Rees-Mogg, is played by Thom Tuk (credits include The Crown) as a smooth and pompous plotter. ‘Was that a chiding reference to Ozymandias I noticed?’ runs a typical line.
Pippa Evans (of The Now Show) as Diana is harder to place as a direct reference, but has something of pro-Remain MP Nicky Morgan about her. Just as Morgan’s one-liner on Theresa May’s leather trousers (‘I don’t think I’ve ever spent that much on anything apart from my wedding dress’) drew blood while getting her in hot water, so Diana freely dispenses quotable put-downs to the press. ‘I never said the Chancellor couldn’t count. Yes… the quote about needing an instruction manual for the abacus can stay.’
Paul Connell (Adam Astill of Coupling, Silent Witness and Black Books) seems to take more from Labour’s Alastair Campbell than real-life Conservative aparatchiks like the more vulgar Lyntton Crosby or the seemingly bookish Tim Hill. Paul is a relatively quiet brooding presence, but an active and effective one who has his own ideas.
A weak and chaotic government is the perfect context for the comedy inherent in the childish scheming of Adam, Diana and Simon, all of whom are very well played. In particular, Adam’s attempts to think on his feet when any plan goes awry deserves special mention.
Helen and Adam’s scenes, presented as clandestine one-on-one meetings where attempts are made to solve the UK’s ‘problem’, contrast his dishevelled desperation with her cool knowledge of the power that sits behind her – think an English clerk with schoolboy-French trying to talk something out of Coco Chanel, and you have something of it.
When Khan and Salinsky took this play to the stage, first at the Edinburgh Fringe this summer, then months later in London, there was a chance the play’s premise would be overtaken by events. Their wait to see if the play’s plot of political paralysis was misjudged ends on 17 November – the end of its current run.
Is this a ‘pro-Remain’ comedy? Its sympathies seem to tend that way, but this is no mean-spirited satire – that a government’s weakness and chaos make such good comic material is hardly the authors’ fault.
Whatever your views on Brexit my advice is, go and see this play – and in the event that a pro-Leave comedy with a cast and script this good reaches the stage, go and see that too.
Eduardo Reyes is features editor on the Law Society Gazette