Wednesday 9 October 2019

09/10/19: A Modest Little Man, Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Highgate

Leader of the Labour Party during World War II, Clement Attlee was elected as UK Prime Minister in 1945 and went on to create the welfare state. Directed by Owain Rose, this gently comic character study tells the story of an unassuming man who ended up playing a pivotal role in shaping post-war Britain.

As the title makes clear, Attlee was not an outlandish figure. Entirely at odds with Winston Churchill’s flamboyant manner (and indeed the kinds of world leaders we see today), his seemingly cautious approach steered clear of personality-based politics and was driven by firm ideological beliefs.

His understated nature presents a challenge for writer Francis Beckett and lead actor Roger Rose, who place this “little mouse” at the centre of the narrative. It’s a testament to their success that a man of so few words (except when discussing cricket) begins to emerge as quietly fascinating.

Portrayed brilliantly by Lynne O’Sullivan, Clement’s devoted wife Violet is far less reticent than her husband and partially narrates the play. The rest of the small cast prove to be hugely versatile, too. Churchill is memorably evoked by Silas Hawkins, one of three actors each tasked with handling multiple parts. The clever writing slowly reveals Attlee through the affection, respect and frustration felt by those around him, rather than through his own actions.

The simple set – an office desk and chairs – is suitably minimal and restrained, in keeping with the PM’s self-contained, low-key introversion.

At times the pacing feels a little slow, but perhaps this is merely a reflection of the more formal modes of discourse employed in the 1940s. The end of the first half seems oddly timed, too, with no one in the audience realising that it was the interval. It might have made more sense to suspend the action at a more distinctive moment, but this is necessarily a subtle narrative without instances of high drama. That’s not a criticism, either: what it lacks in terms of big gestures, it more than makes up for with charm.

Where the show excels is in its mild but insightful wit. The scene in which the Attlees meet King George VI (Clive Greenwood) is masterful in its articulation of social awkwardness. And while A Modest Little Man works as an effective history lesson, it’s also highly informative about the world we live in now. There are shrewd observations with obvious resonance in contemporary politics, such as a nod to the foolishness of holding a referendum. Plus, there’s plenty of scheming, as you’d expect, with key members of the Cabinet debating the suitability of the leader while attempting to further their own careers. Some things, it seems, never change.


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