There are the tropes we know: a dark and stormy night, an English country house, a murder, a charismatic stranger, a kindly vicar, a large cast, the phone lines down. And then there’s what Manor tries to do with the tropes, which is… skew them? In order to … say … something? I don’t really know. There’s a whole lot going on in Moira Buffini’s play, but it doesn’t have either the tense stakes of a murder mystery or the depth of a political drama.
On paper, maybe it sounds interesting. During a terrible storm, a group of strangers take refuge in a dilapidated manor. The manor is owned by Lady Diana Stuckley (Nancy Carroll), who is very worried about the damage the storm might do to her historic family pile. She seems less concerned about the fact that she has just pushed her husband down the stairs. His dead body is lying on the kitchen table, wept over by Isis (Liadán Dunlea), the couple’s daughter (there’s something silly going on with everyone’s names) when the door bursts open. The party seeking shelter includes the aforementioned vicar; a mother and daughter who had been staying in a nearby holiday cottage; a young man whose caravan has been flooded; and three leading figures of a far-right English nationalist group called Albion. As the storm rages outside, the various uninvited guests argue and flirt with each other until, well, the play ends. ‘The river’s burst its banks! The sea wall is breached!’ one of the characters shouts, but there’s no real sense of apocalypse or mounting climate emergency in Fiona Buffini’s production.
Lez Brotherston’s set is really strong, and its boggling grandeur is added to by Nina Dunn’s video background of purple-green, swirling rainclouds. The main space is a Tim Burtonesque skew-whiff gothic room stuffed with mouldering wooden furniture and paraphernalia. Everything – windows, mantelpiece, floor – leans at a lurching, drunken angle. There’s a huge staircase leading up to the dark, distant reaches of the rest of the house. The staircase triggered an association with Brandon Jacob-Jenkins’s Appropriate (set design by Fly Davis) at the Donmar Warehouse in my head; both plays are set in crumbling family homes in which violent Civil War histories survive. This is a shame for Manor really, because it called attention to the fact that Appropriate addressed the white gaze and the sly underground creep of racism with a sophistication that Manor lacks.
In the play, there are a) good characters and b) bad characters and c) characters who would be good but have got caught up with bad people. I actually quite liked the good and the bad characters – by being so pure, they managed to maintain a more vivid presence amidst the production’s diffuse slackness. Good people include Ripley, played beautifully by Michele Austin, holding a lovely warmth at the core of the play. The very slight ok-but-are-you-sure-about-that quirk in Ripley’s face as she sews up the wound of a woman who espouses the belief that, ‘Britain brought civilisation to the world!’ is one of the quieter, endearing and truthful moments of the production. Bad people include Ted Farrier, leader of Albion, who prowls around Diana, gleaming with evil, in Shaun Evans’s coiled and alert portrayal. It’s rather the play’s treatment of the in-between characters – those who are drawn to Albion’s vision of ‘proud’ security out of loneliness and confusion, rather than mouth-foaming hatred – that felt patronising and under-nuanced. Other characters have to keep telling them how they feel about things, why they say the things they say. There’s an uncomfortable scene in which Ted goads Perry (Edward Judge), a local boy who has recently lost his job at Sainsbury’s, to imagine shouting a racial slur at his ex-manager. It feels unearned and unnecessary, bouncing nastily and flatly into the Lyttelton auditorium.
In case you were wondering, Isis is called Isis after the Egyptian goddess, not the terrorist organisation (or the labrador in Downton Abbey). Perry is Perry like the pear cider, that very English beverage. When Ted cheats on his girlfriend, Ruth, Ripley comments that he has always been ‘Ruth-less.’ The characters weirdly keep commenting on each other’s names, which just highlights their unreality as people. Instead, they tend to come across as one-dimensional representations of certain traits – which is a problem if you’re trying to consider the rise of the far-right in Britain today with any subtlety. Every argument that Ted or Ruth makes for Albion is pretty much bare-facedly racist or misogynist; there’s nothing plausibly deniable about it, nothing insidious, it’s England for the English. They prey on working-class, ‘salt of the earth’ Perry, who is either treated with scorn or with pitying sympathy by the educated, rational characters. Ultimately, this just means the production caters breezily to white middle-class audience members, feeding their own prejudices as if they’re innocuous (Perry thinks he’s fat because he has ‘blood pressure and issues’, but it’s actually because he’s lazy, haha) and letting them sit happily on their liberal thrones because they can tell that a woman who thinks that slavery is good is a massive bitch. At a time like now, when the waters are rising and fascism has entered our homes and it’s real and dangerous, a play like this, staged at the National Theatre, could have said something much more meaningful about our current state of affairs.
Manor is on at National Theatre until 1st January 2022. More info and tickets here.