Everything about the National’s Manor just feels… off – intentional or otherwise. A storm is brewing, an unlikely group of misfits are sheltering in a stately home akin to The Persistence of Memory in its slantedness, and yet incredulously, the mother (The Crown’s Nancy Carroll) seems emotionally hyperbolic about the whole affair.
If Diana’s struggle to assert herself as the authority in her house was more devastating than exaggerative – following her husband’s fall down the stairs, to which she is implausibly nonplussed – then the appeal of far-right fascist Ted Farrier (Lewis’ Shaun Evans) would be far more convincing and thus, alarming. Instead, it is clear that Fiona Buffini directed Carroll to lean more into the farcical side of this comedy with sudden strops and outbursts, rather than establish some much-needed authenticity around its socio-political commentary.
This doesn’t undermine Evans’ character, mind. Like a political Pied Piper, Ted is almost Shakespearean in his delivery and posture (a certain gait as a result of his character’s leg injury) in keeping with the poetic layout of his lines in the playtext. There is a faint and intriguing irony in this and Ted’s recollection of Greek mythology, subjects some would say are of interest to the elite the far-right populist is against.
It would be one of the few finely executed political commentaries in this play, if it was deliberate. Sure, a lot of Manor taps into the menacing pull of the far-right among people with different socioeconomic struggles, but that’s hardly a new, unexplored idea – not least when radicalisation is a concept regularly cited in investigations and reports into far-right attacks. The idea of restoration, while a clever metaphor given its setting, is only an expansion of this. There are some interesting moments on the gaslighting of minorities by the far-right, but there’s hardly anything revelatory in Manor’s interrogation of fringe politics – instead it struggles to find something original.
Even the contentious debate over whether you should debate or attack a fascist is left unanswered. Some of the other strangers try to appeal to Anton (Peter Bray), a recent recruit of Farrier’s Albion group, in a bid to pull him out of their grasp, only for Anton to side with Ted when he needs him. When teenagers Dora (Shaniqua Okwok) and Isis (Laidán Dunlea) plot to kill Ted – some long overdue action brilliantly performed by the pair – someone else is caught in the crossfire, and Farrier simply argues that he’d be made a martyr. Several threats to share details of Albion’s horrific ideologies with the wider world would be dramatic, if it hadn’t been established previously that the phone lines were down as a result of the flood. Ideas are planted without sufficient resolution, a disappointment felt in the predictable finish to the first act and the play’s open-ended conclusion.
The comedy is equally underwhelming for the most part. Save for the satisfying moments where a dangerous racist is told to go away (albeit in more explicit terms), a lot of it is condensed into former supermarket checkout worker Perry (Edward Judge), a large individual who soon becomes painfully subservient to Ted and his partner Ruth’s (Amy Forrest) ideals. They carry out a visualisation technique on Perry where he is tasked with imagining his ex-manager in front of him and while bizarre and unsettling, it’s interesting symbolism for the way the far-right projects its frustrations onto minorities rather than corporations and ineffective government.
What a shame, therefore, that instead of Perry being an intriguing case study on indoctrination, a lot of his purpose instead is to bear the brunt of multiple fatphobic insults and ‘jokes’. Even if you happen to find them funny – which you shouldn’t – the over-reliance on tired stereotypes and prejudices is exhausting. Not long after teenager Dora arrives on the scene is she complaining about the lack of Wi-Fi, because obviously that’s the one and only thing UK teens care about.
Add to this a lack of projection amongst cast members as disorientating sound effects of a storm drown them out, and there’s an unfortunate lack of momentum, with things far from emotionally charged in the way you’d expect when there’s a fascist in your midst. Multiple scenes unfold at once upon Lez Brotherston’s set, no doubt alluding to secrets unmasked as the plot progresses, but it’s hard to be invested in such short-term scenes when we’re not long pulled out of them. Yet, that’s the deeply frustrating issue with Buffini’s Manor: like a flood, the premise and impressive performances pull you in, but it isn’t long before all of the promising ideas are swept away. 150 minutes later and I feel both lost and at a loss.
Manor is now playing in the Lyttelton Theatre until 1 January.
Production Images: Manuel Harlan.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘Manor’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for the above article and all opinions stated are honest and my own.