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UPPER CUT – Southwark Playhouse, London.

Photo by Bob Workman

Photo by Bob Workman

Juliet Gilkes Romero’s new drama Upper Cut is a look at the fortunes of two black Londoners, Michael and Karen, both politically-engaged and associated with the Labour party. It takes them from the militant 1980s to the significantly more compromised present. Or rather it goes back through, as it has adopted the structure of Pinter’s Betrayal in giving us the story in reverse. The third figure in this drama is Barry, a member of the party machine, white and northern, who has a Svengali-like role in attempting to draw these two away from the radical fringe to the mainstream of the party.

With plays like this that mix reality and fiction, the tendency to look for real world parallels is inevitable. The drama cleverly parodies this in a scene when Karen comes to House of Commons for the first time and complains that the security guard thought she was Diane Abbot – neatly pointing out the unreconstructed racism that the first black MPs faced in 1987 and chiding the audience for maybe thinking that themselves. There are other knowing moments as the drama progresses (“There’s a good guy in the next office, proper socialist – I think he’s called Tony Blair”) but unfortunately these moments are few compared to the parts of the play which are heavy in exposition and rhetoric.

The characters are all meant to be professional politicians but speak in a way that’s almost impossible to imagine people who exist in this world speaking. They spell out the issues to each other like they don’t have any understanding of the subject and it sounds more like competing viewpoints being staged with little thought for the characters. When Barry fulminates that “I’ll let Hell freeze over before I let China outdo us on female representation!” you see how the need to say things on the nose leads the characters to speak in a way that is forced and unnatural. As well that it’s representative of the abundance of clichés here: in this work, the press is seemingly always having a field day.

There are some strong elements in the performances: Akemniji Ndifornyen shows Michael’s change from deputy leader to radical student skilfully, Andrew Scarborough is at his best when barking about “fucknuttery” and Emma Dennis-Edwards is believably rabble rousing when making a speech. Sadly though these moments are the exception and they are more often shouty and a little stilted.

Its structure is ambitious but the reason for having it in the first place seems unclear. It doesn’t seem a terribly shocking thing to show Labour politicians having quite different political views in middle age than they had when they were firebrand youths – it’s the case with most of Tony Blair’s cabinet – so telling the story this way doesn’t add much to the drama. It’s also uneven: by going back from 2012 to August 1987 in about 4 big jumps and then going almost month by month back to 1986, it leads to a second half which feels sluggish and drawn out.

It’s a shame though as the story of Black Sections is a fascinating and overlooked piece of recent British political history. Upper Cut seems instead to be too concerned in making sure the audience knows exactly what’s going on and so rather than adding nuance, it flattens it out into a familiar and tired story of political compromise.

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Reviewed 16/01/15

By Robbie Lumsden

14th January – 7th February 2015
Southwark Playhouse, London, SE1.

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