Roger Osborne’s political satire is a gem

IT’S difficult to define success in the world of the arts, and perhaps more so with theatre than many other disciplines.

Is it simply being performed? Personal satisfaction with the end product? A packed house? An appreciative audience? The respect of your peers? Is it turning a profit on a play?

Sadly, unless you set your words to hummable tunes, and preferably have a double-barrelled surname, the last is unlikely to happen. But on every other point, I sincerely hope that local writer Roger Osborne is feeling very successful indeed.

Roger is no stranger to arranging words. He is already a critically acclaimed writer of fact and fiction: his 1999 Floating Egg has been a favourite of mine for years. But nevertheless, the craft of playwriting is a distinct speciality, and one which he has been honing with the support of the SJT’s Write Stuff scheme for aspiring playwrights.

The resulting political satire is a gem. It features half a dozen characters, but we only ever meet three: political elder statesman Stephen, up-and-coming MP Daniel and hard-bitten veteran journalist Vanessa. But looming large, just off stage, are Stephen’s arch-rival Ray, aspirant young PM John and Vanessa’s late goddaughter (and Daniel’s ex) Mary.

Across two acts and a post-script we meet the characters; take them at face value; laugh at their various attempts at manipulation and control; and then realise that nothing – and no-one – is what it/they seem.

In a world of political imperatives, we find that blackmail, betrayal and phone hacking are the new means of survival. With Vanessa adding journalistic spin to the mix, it becomes clear that the press is not a weapon to be wielded by amateurs. Each is immersed in their own game, but none fully grasps the rules that the others are playing by – with tragic results.

Given that this was a workshop production – that is, brought to the stage in less than half the usual time – it was an excellent performance by all the actors and a great credit to director Chris Monks and deputy stage manager Neil Webb. Samuel Taylor was a convincingly conniving Daniel; Mark Stratton a ministerially pompous Stephen. And in Vanessa, artfully portrayed by Janine Birkett, we surely have one of those rare beasts: a great part for the 40+ actress. Unfortunately, today’s celebrity-obsessed society creates a Catch 22 for artists of all ilks: it’s hard to be successful until you’re successful. Getting people to attend a play by a new writer and without household-name actors gets harder and harder in an age when even cartoon films have to be voiced by Hollywood favourites.

Friday’s opening night was pleasingly packed, but if The Art of Persuasion could be staged in the West End with Bill Nighy, Joanna Lumley and Robert Pattinson you’d have them flooding in and leaving happy night after night.

The end result wouldn’t be one jot better than the SJT’s premiere, but more people would discover that Roger Osborne is a bright new talent in the world of theatre.