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Playing with Fire

She knows her mushy peas from her guacamole
---- George
Playing with Fire
David Troughton as George and Emma Fielding as Alex
(Photo: Catherine Ashmore)
David Edgar writes political plays, not plays just about the politics of the Iraqi war, but plays about the state of the nation. Edgar has fine observation and analytical skills and is always ready to find humour in the ridiculous. His latest, Playing with Fire, is a play of two halves. The first half is the detail of how and why a council, in a fictional Northern town, Wyverdale, is failing its residents, and the measures that central government takes to improve its performance. The second half starts with a judicial enquiry into riots in the town and shows the confusion that results when the council loses its traditional support.

Civil servant Alex Clifton (Emma Fielding) is deputed by a "New Labour" government minister (Alistair Petrie) to investigate Wyverdale District Council. Wyverdale is ruled by a posse of traditional, white, male, middle-aged, "Old" Labour councillors, headed by George Aldred (David Troughton). Part of the town has a predominately Asian population but their representation on the council is limited to one or two councillors of whom Riaz Rafique (Paul Bhattacharjee) is one. Clifton heads up north to bring some management techniques to the borough but the aim of inclusivity at the multi-cultural, multi-racial Festival of Faith clashes with a right wing nationalist party Britanniamarch and a riot ensues.

The characterisation of his cast is one of Edgar's strong points as is his ear for the language of politics and the new breed of slick, public relations-aware Labour politicians. The first act is stuffed with clever allusion. But it is in the second act that Edgar looks at what has happened to these Northern communities which have lost their mills and pits and traditional industry. Instead of becoming multicultural communities, towns like Bradford and Oldham have split into what Edgar calls duocultures -- one a community of traditional poor, white, working class; another with Bangladeshi/Pakistani heritage; and between them uneasy divide. A minority of white neo-fascist nationalists bait the Asian communities and Asian youth retaliate in what can descend into rioting. It is from these communities that the young Asian London bombers of July 2005 emerged.

The second act is confusing. It starts with the judicial hearing where the political judge, a member of the House of Lords (Geoffrey Beevers), experiments with introducing himself as Lord Stanley or by using his first name in a self conscious attempt to appear more approachable. Members of the community give evidence and show the hardening of attitudes that have taken place. The court scenes are interrupted by another outbreak of violence.

There are good performances especially from David Troughton as the well meaning leader of Wyverdale, a man we sympathise with. His impassioned second act speech about politicians trying to make things different for everybody, is impressive and sincere. Trevor Cooper plays the whiskery and doughty Arthur Barraclough whose chip butty approach amuses. Oliver Ford Davis as Labour councillor Frank Wilkins is passed over in favour of an Asian politician and re-emerges as an elected mayor after exploiting anti-Asian feeling. Emma Fielding has an enormous role as the New Labour trouble shooter and her character's floundering is because what she is expected to rectify is too complex and too deep rooted.

I loved the small details, the mobile phones which go off at every meeting and the asides to the callers. When Alex is asked about her personal inspiration for a career in politics, she cites an emotional reaction to Live Aid! Director Michael Attenborough marshals a 23 strong cast but the play has long periods of inaction in its three hour running time. The sets are functional but pedestrian with a plethora of signs and municipal street furniture. Playing with Fire, although topical, well intentioned and with plenty of moments which made me smile, fails really to ignite as a dramatic vehicle.

Written by David Edgar
Directed by Michael Attenborough

Starring: Emma Fielding, Oliver Ford Davies, David Troughton, Paul Bhattacharjee
With: Geoffrey Beevers, Kate Best, Susan Brown, Trevor Cooper, Rudi Dharmalingam, Nick Fletcher, Colin Haigh, Ranjit Krishnamma, Jonathan McGuinness, Aaron Neil, Bhasker Patel, Alistair Petrie, Helen Rutter, Rebekah Staton, Ewan Stewart, Caroline Strong, Tony Turner, Deka Walmsley, Sameena Zehra
Design: Lez Brotherston
Lighting: Mark Henderson
Sound: Christopher Shutt
Music: Paddy Cunneen
Running time: Two hours 55 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking to 22nd October 2005.
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 27 September 2005 performance at the Olivier, Royal National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 (Rail/Tube: Waterloo)
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