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Manor

By Moira Buffini
National Theatre - Lyttelton Theatre. Until January 1 2022

Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
Published on November 26, 2021
www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Manor Shaun Evans as populist far right demagogue Ted in Manor. PHOTO: MANUEL HARLAN

Moira Buffini has done some magnificent work including Dinner and Handbagged but this time, let loose on the large Lyttleton stage and with her chance to deliver a serious ‘State of the Nation Play’, she falters.

Way too schematic, it sets up strawman arguments about a Right-wing bogeyman which never convince and plays to a Left Liberal gallery. While she’s adept at crafting action and comic set pieces and some ace one-liners, the play simply takes on too much.

It variously blends the country house murder mystery with a disaster movie and play of ideas. It touches on themes of climate disaster, the plight of the stately home, the failures of democracy and the rise of populist shysters, here loosely defined as Far Right.

Lumbering metaphors hang heavy in the air even more than Lez Brotherston’s single gargantuan set for this Manor Hall. It’s all Dali-esque skewed edges and dominated by a frighteningly vertiginous staircase, more Addams Family than Downton.

Manor Nancy Carroll (Diana) in Manor at the NT.
PHOTO: MANUEL HARLAN

That’s where Lady Diana (Nancy Carroll), ex It Girl, tussles with her useless faded rock star husband and he falls to his demise. The play opens with sitcom-like domestic squabbles but soon an almighty deluge hits and as local riverbanks burst the family find themselves providing shelter from the storm for a motley bunch of passing strangers. These represent a microcosm of England and Buffini (and her sister Fiona who directs it) struggle to keep all these plates spinning at once.

There’s Ripley, a sensible, noble, black A&E nurse up from London with her daughter Dora, who is horrified to be in this Wi-Fi desert. From the village there’s a kindly old gay vicar and an overweight aimless youth, Perry, whose been fired from the Sainsbury’s checkout and resides in a caravan, now swept away.

Worst of all, there’s trio who turn out to be populist far right tycoon Ted (Shaun Evans), his sidekick Anton, and his blind (ouch) partner Ruth, who is utterly charmless and yet seems to have held down a university history teaching post while being to the Right the Attila the Hun. She’s devoted to this Svengali of the Albion Party and their abusive relationship contrasts sharply with the Sapphic bliss that develops between the two young girls.

Evans has the swagger for Ted and despite his crass racism and misogyny, canny ole Lady Diana falls for him, seeing him as her meal ticket out of financial woes. There’s always a roof that needs fixing. Carroll does ‘pull-yer-socks up’ types with panache but it’s Michele Austin, as the sensible nurse, who is the solid core of the piece and the only convincing character. The cast are generally at sea trying to get these characters beyond archetypes.

The play misses a key point, which is that in our polarised world it’s harder, certainly in cynical ole England, for nutters to get any purchase with the populace. The saloon bar charms of Nigel Farage worked on many but never enough, and a neither would this crass Poundshop Messiah really get anywhere. Good try, Buffinis.

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