National Theatre (Olivier), London SE1
Opened 21 September, 2005

David Edgar has long been fond of “state-of” plays. In the 1990s, he wrote a trilogy about the state of eastern Europe after the Cold War.  Last year, he wrote a pair of pieces about the state of American politics. Playing With Fire is about the state of British politics: local government against London wonks; local community versus wider society; multiculturalism and what happens when it breaks down.

It may sound dry, but Edgar’s gift is being able to make wider issues come alive through individuals. They don’t become symbols of grander ideas or mouthpieces for arguments; we just see how the big things affect their lives.  He doesn’t spoon-feed the audience, either; we make our own connections.  And almost the entire story is told in flashback, so we can watch most of the action with a kind of hindsight.

Civil servant Alex is parachuted in to get a Yorkshire town council working “properly”, i.e. along Blairite lines.  She meets resistance both from wily old-Labour local politicos, and from a situation that just isn’t that simple.  Racial tensions in the town have been slowly escalating, partly fomented by a far-right party; all it takes is one spark. Does Alex supply that spark, or does it happen in spite of her efforts?

There are lots of true local-political dilemmas. People want prostitutes off the street, say, but building a drop-in centre looks like giving them a reward.  And again and again, the basic problem is: where does the money come from? You can only help the worst off by taking money from facilities for everybody.  That leads to resentment, and before you know it you’ve got race riots like those in Burnley, Oldham or Bradford.

Michael Attenborough (whose father, Lord Dickie, was at the press night) adroitly directs his cast of some two dozen through the three-hour play.  Emma Fielding is excellent as Alex: intelligent and committed to her beliefs, but never quite passionate.  David Troughton matches her as the sly yet surprisingly principled council leader; Tervor Cooper steals scenes as a no-nonsense Dennis Skinner type.

Edgar’s late wife sat on Birmingham city council, so his writing here is informed by intimate knowledge both of how such bodies operate and of the problems a multicultural city can pose.  But he knows that ideas only matter as far as they affect people’s real lives.  There’s a hell of a lot in this play, and it doesn’t all come off perfectly. But in some ways, that’s the whole point: politics and life are like that.

Written for Teletext.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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