A MODEST LITTLE MAN
by Francis Beckett.
Bread & Roses theatre, 68 Clapham Manor Street, London SE4 6DZ to 26 January 2019.
Runs 70 mins No interval.
TICKETS: 020 8050 3025.
Review: William Russell 17 January
Putting the record straight
Clement Attlee belongs to another time. He wasn’t a flamboyant man, and the chances of some Hollywood star donning a fat suit and prosthetics to play him are unlikely to say the least – but if the Home Front ran well during the second world war it was because he was deputy Prime Minister – and the post war Labour government under his premiership achieved things the like of which every Labour leader since can only dream of achieving, and which created the society we live in today. He did it surrounded by political titans.
Francis Beckett’s play sets about bringing him back to mind and the result is an inspiring and very funny tale about how this monosyllabic man coped with the flamboyant crew who made up his Cabinet and set them to work creating post war socialist Britain. The words are not all his, but where the matter they are, and the portraits of those colleagues – Bevin, Bevan, Dalton & Morrison – are incisive and to the point. The events are historically accurate as far as one can judge, and there are no fabrications for dramatic ends like Churchill travelling on the underground and talking to the common man, he might have recognised the latter but he probably never travelled in public transport at any time in his life let alone on the tube. It is the equivalent of Mary Queen of Scots who regularly meets Queen Elizabeth on the cinema screen.
Attlee, a public school boy, son of a lawyer, educated at Haileybury went to Oxford, served in the First World War and in 1922 became Labour MP for Limehouse. It was the lives of the London poor which inspired his visions of a new world. He became Labour leader in 1935, served in the Coalition government led by Churchill in the Second World War as his deputy and became prime minister in 1945. Roger Rose creates a splendidly taciturn man, a lover of cricket, devoted to his wife – she drove the, to Buckingham palace when he went to see the King on becoming Prime Minister – and a skilled handler of the volatile crew who formed his Cabinet.
He was, as Peter Hennessey has said, a man who used silence, modesty and understatement as weapons and was “the exemplary PM.”
The play has been well directed by Owain Rose and the cast work hard filling the various roles, the performances of some being better for those who cannot remember the real people than for those who do. Rose manages, however, to create an Attlee who is kind of like the real thing and Lynne O’Sullivan as his wife is movingly sympathetic character as she comments on the events of their time in Downing Street.
This is one of the most enjoyable fringe shows I have seen in ages and is, apart from anything else, about things pretty well forgotten now, the origins of what people today take for granted – the National Health Service, the Welfare State, nationalised industries, education reform, unemployment pay and much, much more.
Is there life after Bread & Roses for the play? I very much hope so.
Clem Attlee: Roger Rose.
Violet Attlee: Lynne O’Sullivan.
Herbert Morrison: Steven Maddocks.
King George V1, Ernest Bevin, Nye Bevan & a vicar: Clive Greenwood.
Churchill, Hugh Dalton & E.H. Carr: Silas Hawkins.
Rose & Jennie Lee: Charlotte Campbell.
Director: Owain Rose.
Sound & Lighting: Michael Alexander.