It may be the panto season but I doubt we shall see a more grotesque villain this Christmas than Dame Shirley Porter, former leader of Westminster Council, as portrayed in Gregory Evans’ mind-boggling play Shirleymander. Her corrupt eighties regime would stand comparison with any of the Dallas/Dynasty-style soaps of the time. Indeed, Porter’s big-shouldered wardrobe was clearly based on some kind of Joan Collins fantasy. In one scene, two council executives, are discussing the feasibility of leaking the inside story, “She’d wear our testicles for earrings,” says one. “No, they’re not big or shiny enough,” demurs the other.
Her first act in 1983 was to switch the council biscuit contract from Sainsbury’s to Tesco, founded by her father Jack Cohen on whose tales of self-made glory she was brought up and to which the play briefly alluded although the psychological hinterland of the making of a monster was never fully explored.
What this drama did extraordinarily well was to conjure up an atmosphere of dread, suspicion and subservience which allowed her reign of terror to flourish. The corridors of Westminster Council were littered with the neurotic, chain-smoking remnants of those officers who hadn’t fled. Tracy-Ann Oberman’s performance as Porter seemed at first too large, too comic, too shriekingly in your face until it became clear that this was no cartoon but freakishly real.
It is incredible that Porter was able to move council tenants to wards where they couldn’t harm the Tory vote, in one case housing families in asbestos-coated tower blocks. “They’ll be fine as long as they don’t put a nail in the wall. These sort of people don’t do DIY anyway,” she announced like the most cruel of tinpot dictators.
Bruce Alexander played the district auditor, ruthlessness coated in velvety politeness, as he scythed through the council’s office, his photocopier working faster than her document shredder. She was found guilty of gerrymandering - redefining political boundaries to alter electoral results - but the order that she should repay the £43 million her ill-judged actions had cost local residents was later changed to a mere £12 million. This was a monster who was neither vanquished or chastened. “Regrets,” said Oberman, curling her tongue contemptuously around the play’s pay-off line, “are not my style.”
By comparison, the sex mad, murderous characters of Jacobean revenge tragedy, The Changeling, by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley, seemed almost principled - and this is a play in which there is a good deal of moral ambiguity. Zubin Varla, with his cracked voice performance, gave a hint of the complex psyche of the deformed servant Deflores who was prepared to commit murder for sex but nothing so vulgar as money. Anna Madeley’s Beatrice-Joanna, the epicentre of much lust, failed to convey the hideousness beneath the beauty. In the mad house, only Stephen Hogan’s Lollio contributed much to the comic subplot while Alex Hassell’s grieving Tomazo recited his lines like a dreary shopping list. Jeremy Mortimer’s production was apparently transposed from 1622 to the twenties. I wasn’t looking for flappers but the period detail was completely lacking.
The latest of Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran’s surreal plays about a man (Stephen Mangan) living in parallel universes, was my favourite. Grey Expectations featured a witty credit crunch plot, great one-liners and superbly comic characters, especially Phyllida Law’s turn as Dottie, a wonderfully articulate and quite mad pensioner.
Josie Lawrence was also an unwittingly comic mum in Nigel Smith’s Vent, a one-off play preceding his third series based on his own experience of coming out of a coma. But I’m not sure Smith can stretch the drip feed of his material much further.