In The New Statesman: Episode 2006, the B’Stard nightmare has fully unfolded. From his office at Number 9 (Tony’s P.A.: ‘But there isn’t a Number 9 Downing Street!’ Alan: ‘There’s a rear entrance…’), Alan – now controlling New Labour – is the master puppeteer, his fingers firmly inserted in more, larger and nastier pies than ever. Whether he’s telling Condoleeza Rice to invade Norway, ordering the murder of his ex-wife or keeping his working-class hero P.A. Frank in service through blackmail, B’Stard’s New Labour Statesman is even more unlikeable than the young Tory of the nineteen-eighties.
This play hasn’t received rave reviews, and I’m sorry to say that it’s plain to see why. Written by TV comedy writers Marks & Gran (responsible for the massively popular Birds of a Feather and Goodnight Sweetheart), the script - which relies for its wit on ‘fat-adulterous-Prescott’, ‘ugly-Cherie’, ‘stupid-Bush’ jokes – is not sparkling. It’s quite possible that some hit shows aren’t destined to survive the journey from screen to stage, and this may be a case in point. But it’s not just this that’s problematic. The acting seems clunky (it may be opening night, but the play began touring a couple of weeks ago, so the usual first-night nerves excuses don’t really wash), with frequent fluffs and pauses in between lines slowing down the little action there is. The set is essentially a TV set: a ministerial office that, despite having some clever tricks up its sleeve, makes things feel artificially static. Alan rarely leaves it, and the audience’s imagination doesn’t get the chance to go very far either. The laboured plot has a couple of nice twists, but is generally predictable, and the depictions of any real political figures are childishly simplistic.
Despite all this, audience reaction to the play – whilst mixed (some people left before the interval)– was generally very positive. Rik Mayall is still funny, after all, even if the only gems here originated from improvised cover-ups, naughty swearing and willy sight gags. During the first half, Alan’s cynical tirades against political correctness (‘Single mothers? What about ‘em? I can’t have impregnated more than two dozen of the sluts this year!’) received an almost unintelligibly positive response (I found myself wondering if the play might slowly gain a following of British National Party supporters taking it at face value). Holding this show up as an example of satire in the great tradition alongside the work of Dario Fo, Bernard Shaw, Chris Morris and Armando Ianucci (as the printed programme does) is hubristic. During the first years of New Labour, it’s true, political satire in popular culture fell from vogue, but in the government's declining years we are again surrounded by material of a very high standard. Whether by The Thick Of It, Rory Bremner or even Little Britain, we’ve been made familiar with the lampooning of all aspects of modern politics. The New Statesman’s caricature of the current state of things sadly doesn’t show us anything we haven’t already seen done better, cleverer, and funnier.
I was very young when I first watched Alan B’Stard on TV, but I remember thinking it was hilarious, cutting and clever. Maybe my memory misleads me. But let’s hope instead that I’m just too cynical. After all, my disappointment at watching the pedestal of a comic hero sink a little lower into the quicksand wasn’t matched by the cries of ‘excellent’ and ‘very, very good’ which abounded by the theatre's exit.