Pros: Playwright Juliet Gilkes Romero addresses important political issues with humour and a light touch.
Cons: The back-to-front way of telling the story works well to make a point, but it also causes the play to lose steam halfway through.
2015 has barely begun, but we only need to look at the London stages to know that it’s an election year. There’s plenty of exciting stuff lined up, like James Graham and Josie Rourke’s live TV event The Vote at the Donmar Warehouse. Just closed at the Royal Court last week, Hope is a play about the pragmatism versus idealism dilemma for Labour party members under a Tory government. And now we have Upper Cut at Southwark Playhouse, which is about, erm, the pragmatism versus idealism dilemma for Labour party members under a Tory government.
Upper Cut tells the story of Karen, an aspiring black MP who gets kicked out of the Labour party just before the 1987 general election because she’s taking a bit too firm a stand on the issue of black representation in Westminster for the leadership’s liking. Matters are further complicated when Karen’s lover Michael, a fierce campaigner for black shortlists, is increasingly taken in by spin doctor Barry who’s busy reinventing the party as ‘New Labour’.
It’s a strong play, though not without its problems. Playwright Juliet Gilkes Romero has opted to tell the story in reverse, starting in 2012 and jumping back in time with each scene before ending in 1986. By rearranging the order of events Romero highlights Karen and Michael’s dwindling idealism; every scene widens the gap between the people they were when they first went into politics, keen to make a difference, and the people 25 years of trying to survive the political arena have made them become.
It also adds a bitter irony to the events on stage, especially to the ending, but in terms of dramatic tension it’s a less successful approach. In the first scenes the audience is still trying to figure out what exactly went down between Karen, Michael and Barry; but around the halfway point everything has become perfectly clear and Romero has no choice but to let the rest of the story play out, even though we all know exactly what’s going to happen.
Another point is the acting. The cast seem to settle in a bit more over the course of the play, but particularly in the beginning the dialogues sound as if the characters are having one of those pre-election televised debates, even during very personal conversations. Nevertheless, Karen and Michael are well-rounded and engaging enough characters to look past that without much trouble, and as for Barry, well, it actually rather suits him.
Upper Cut addresses some heavy issues that are certainly no laughing matter –institutionalised racism, and the lack of representation for ethnic minorities in politics. At the same time it also has plenty of welcome, light-hearted moments: from Karen and Michael’s recurring discussions on his taste in music to Barry’s Malcolm Tucker-esque episodes (although, sadly, with less creative swearing). And, although it’s beginning (by which I mean the beginning of the play, so technically the end of the story) makes it clear that we’re not there yet in terms of resolving the representation problem, it’s also cautiously optimistic in making Michael deputy leader of the party.
All in all, Upper Cut is an engaging but accessible play that doesn’t back down from asking the difficult questions. Highly recommended for everyone who prefers their political drama to take place in an actual theatre.
Author: Juliet Gilkes Romero
Director: Lotte Wakeham
Producer: W14 Productions
Booking Until: 7 February 2015
Box Office: 020 7407 0234
Booking Link: http://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/the-little/upper-cut/