The day before I went to see Dan Patterson and Colin Swash’s new farce inspired by the expenses scandal, over 2000 students and supporters blocked traffic outside the Vaudeville Theatre to protest police brutality. Viewed in light of this – and in the wider context of brutal budget cuts, and nationwide strikes, The Duck House has plenty of material on which to draw, the satirical potential is considerable.
This winter has seen a nationwide re-ignition of the student movement. With Sussex University and the University of London taking out campus-wide injunctions prohibiting certain forms of protest and the President of the University of London Union, Michael Chessum, being arrested for planning a demonstration, students are protesting their vanishing right to protest.
This erosion is something that’s also true of the arts world. With Maria Miller stating that art needs to focus on profit, and many contemporary theatre-makers, including Daniel Bye and Bryony Kimmings, publicly discussing their meagre earnings, and their worries for the future of fringe theatre, there’s a sense that genuinely risk-taking work is under threat. At a Radar Festival platform at the Bush Theatre, Kieran Hurley stated that “All theatre is political”, suggesting that theatre could provide a space for discussion in the face of a wider attack on protest. Given this, what could we expect from The Duck House, an expensively ticketed, West End show claiming to take on the recent scandal of MPs’ excesses? Can commercial theatre of this kind ever be truly political theatre? Would it even try?
Patterson and Swash’s play adopts the familiar form of the farce. It’s not an acid satire, rather a slick but essentially superficial comedy. Labour MP, soon to be Conservative Cabinet Minister, Robert Houston, played by Ben Miller, spends an awful lot of time racing around the stage, with his wife, son and poorly paid Russian housekeeper in tow, hiding his expenses hoard from Simon Shepherd’s Tory pitbull, Sir Norman Cavendish. The play does not hold back. MPs – all MPs – are painted as greedy idiots, with corruption endemic whether they be Tory, Labour or Lib Dems. The only Tories who aren’t shown to be corrupt are those who are too rich for the idea to have occurred to them. The system is shown to be utterly broken.
In painting everyone with the same tainted brush, Swash and Patterson’s play is at least balanced, but it’s also wearyingly nihilistic. All politicians suck, it seems. The only person who could potentially provide an alternative, a glimmer of hope, is Seb, Miller’s left-leaning son, played James Musgrave, but he’s made to look ridiculous, planning to stand outside the Chinese Embassy in a panda suit as a form of protest. And when he’s not in the panda suit he is wearing a hoodie emblazoned with a slogan which predates his existence.
The production as a whole not only presents a broad, bleak outlook, lacking in any glow of hope, but it underplays one of the central ironies of the expenses scandal, that it all took place against a backdrop of a growing economic crisis. In the opening scene we watch Ben Miller and his wife – sharply played by Nancy Carroll – planning their new Blue life, in which Jacobs Creek is gleefully and gratefully traded in for Bollinger. This is all played for laughs. But there’s little in the way of reference to the pinch of austerity. It’s understandable in a way: the joke is on Miller’s character, his optimism and hypocrisy, but given Cameron’s recent pronouncements it all feels a little hollow, reality overwriting imagined excess.
Though it could have hit much harder and been more targeted in its jabs, the play is often very funny. Terry Johnson’s production handles the visual humour brilliantly, particularly one scene in which an accident with some icing sugar is labelled a “Nigella recipe”. It’s an entertaining, undemanding evening. But one that leaves a sour note as you leave the theatre and realise that the farce of this government, the hypocrisy and the joke of it all, is much deeper, darker and nastier in real life.