Agatha Christie had three, Noel Coward had four and Alan Ayckbourn had five but only a handful of playwrights have had more than two plays running in London at the same time. The latest is Mike Bartlett, whose three shows – Cock at the Ambassador, the 47th at the Old Vic and Scandaltown at the Lyric Hammersmith – have made him the man of the moment in London theatre.
What makes Bartlett’s achievement more remarkable is he writes political plays rather than comedies or thrillers. What makes it almost miraculous is that one of his current plays is a Restoration comedy and another is written in blank verse.
Cock is a revival of a 2009 play about sexual identity but Scandaltown and The 47th are very much of the moment, one set in the present and the other two years into the future. The original Restoration comedies appeared after the theatres reopened in London after 18 years under the Puritans and Scandaltown marks their reopening after two years of lockdown.
Using all the Restoration conventions, including the “breeches role” of an actress appearing in male clothes, multi-plot action and sex-based humour, it features a generational conflict between prim twentysomethings and cynical, dissolute fortysomethings. It is full of current political references, including to a politician whose wife is a Daily Mail columnist and has something of a panto atmosphere.
The play carries nothing as straightforward as a message but the central speech of Jack Virtue, the romantic lead, is a hymn to pleasure and licence as he denounces the tyranny of virtue.
The 47th is set in 2024 when Ted Cruz is poised to become the Republican nominee for president and Joe Biden is planning to run again
Like Charles III, Bartlett's play about Prince Charles after he becomes king, the 47th is set in the future and both plays are written in black verse and stuffed with Shakespearian references. It is set in 2024 when Ted Cruz is poised to become the Republican nominee for president and Joe Biden is planning to run again.
Cruz asks Donald Trump, played magnificently by Bertie Carvel, to endorse him but Trump turns the announcement into a rally with the crowd chanting for him to run himself. He pushes Cruz out of the way and appeals to a mob to take to the streets, Biden hands the reins to Kamala Harris and she declares a state of emergency.
Bartlett gives the devil the best tunes and Carvel’s Trump is funny and persuasive as well as narcissistic and amoral.
“I know, I know. You hate me. So much, right?
My face, this hair, my wife, you loathe the way
I hold my hand, when making points. My lips?” he tells the audience as he arrives onstage on a golf buggy.
“And hey, your hate is real, and beautiful.
It’s special hate, it makes you pure,
And yet, you just can’t get enough of me.”
For the past few years, James Graham has been Britain's leading political playwright and his play This House, set in the House of Commons in the 1970s, is a favourite among the political classes. This may be because it flatters them, as Graham's play about old bruisers in the whips' offices celebrates the fundamental decency of the political tribes and the virtue of the system.
Graham’s well-constructed plays are essentially affirmative, like Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing, which sentimentalised the American political system. The same could not be said of Bartlett, who has a merciless eye for the venal and is under no illusions about the system or whom it serves.
In The 47th, when Harris tries to negotiate with Trump so that he will play by the rules, he tells her she still doesn’t understand why half the country despises her:
“You cannot understand why they all vote
For me. Can you? Well let me help you out:
It’s that you say you listen and you don’t.
You order them around. ‘Hey don’t own this!
Hey don’t do that!’ You speak to them like kids.
And not just kids but poorer less good-looking
Trashy kids, that you and your celebrities
All constant lecture, from your raised pile.”
But for a sudden change in scheduling at the Old Vic, Bartlett would have only two plays running in London rather than three. But his success is an encouraging sign of the vitality of the theatre, despite the dominance of musicals in the West End, and of the enduring appetite for sharp political satire.