April 22, 2018

Upper Cut – Labour politicians discuss race issues at length at Southwark Playhouse

Did you make a friendship during Freshers’ Week that you came to regret? Did you not spot your new best friend’s fanatical love of politics until it was too late? Did you have to spend the next three years sidestepping them to avoid being lectured ad nauseam on trade unionism, Keynesianism or another topic they had close to their hearts?

Upper Cut is currently showing at the Southwark Playhouse and watching it feels very much like being trapped with one of those politics-obsessed students. Written by Juliet Gilkes Romero the subject is the representation of black people in Parliament –  a topic that isn’t best served by 90 minutes of virtually humourless lecturing.

It is 2011 and two black politicos who have just slept together are talking about politics. Akemnji Ndifornyen plays patient, compromising Michael who has climbed his way into Parliament and become a Labour MP. Emma Dennis-Edwards’ Karen is a wannabe who has been expelled by the Labour party. The third character is Barry, a white Labour party spin doctor played by Andrew Scarborough who manipulates and encourages both of the others. He enjoys playing gatekeeper to the Commons in our democracy’s peculiar world where getting selected by the party is a bigger hurdle than getting selected by the electorate. He also briefly questions the idea of black-only shortlists for parliamentary candidates, but otherwise the play assumes the correctness of this contemporary injustice towards candidates who might be ideal yet of the wrong colour.

We follow the characters back through time, to various important dates in Labour Party history. Their growing youthfulness is portrayed by an increased interest in dancing and we see their changing views and the events that drive their thinking. This backwards set-up removes any tension and though a couple of lines draw a laugh, the script is non-stop race politics. These three people talk nothing but politics – save for the occasional black music discussion – even in the bedroom. With no alternate perspective the bombardment is monotonous.

Upper Cut 1 credit Bob Workman

Photo credit Bob Workman

The well-thought out set looks like Holly Golightly’s apartment, all piles of unopened packing cases. These are moved around by the cast to make chairs and desks. It is a nice touch, reminding of the insubstantiality of politics and its here-today-gone-in-five-years nature. Can MPs really make any difference or are they just rearranging furniture?

Upper Cut looks at internal Labour Party race politics over the last few decades. Politics students, socialist historians and Labour Party activists will be best placed to find it interesting. A general regard for justice and fairness is not enough – you need to be seeped in Labour politics. Otherwise though sincere the play becomes tedious and makes a valid debate seem an overlong grievance.

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