A few cans of Hairspray

Brian Coleman gives his acerbic verdict on the hit West End musical

In the days when I had a life (before I became a professional politician) I was a regular West End theatre-goer and so it was last Friday, during that blissful period between Christmas and New Year when public servants can have a week off, I went along to the Shaftesbury Theatre to see the new hot show, the musical Hairspray.

Now the London Assembly is currently conducting an investigation into the physical state of the West End theatres and as the Shaftesbury lies in the Borough of Camden (within my constituency) I have always had a soft spot for the building.

This dates from the time I lead a deputation to the then Philistines at Camden who wanted to cancel its licence on the grounds it was producing "loud music".

Anyway, having forked out £60 for my ticket plus an outrageous £6 for a programme (a complete rip off), I was not feeling sympathetic towards the theatre owners who have the nerve to suggest the London Assembly should propose a surcharge on West End tickets to give them the money to upgrade the facilities.

Hairspray is a sell out and the Shaftesbury Theatre struggles to cope. "Good to see the men having to queue to use the loo," remarked two ladies in the Royal Circle Bar at the interval.

Rather than a surcharge on tickets quite why the theatre owners cannot screw the show producers for more I have no idea.

As for the show itself it was certainly loud. Michael Ball was taking a well earned holiday from his role in drag as Mrs Turnblad and, frankly, the understudy was playing it less like Divine (in the film) and more like Danny La Rue.

"The understudy just likes being on stage a little too much," remarked the well informed Theatre Usher.

Mel Smith as Mr Turnblad had a look on his face that seemed to say it was this show or three weeks Panto in Bognor Regis.

The only principal who seemed to recognise the need for some serious acting during the evening was the excellent Tracie Bennett (ex-Coronation Street) as Mrs Von Tussle.

The show was not helped by the fact the set (which looked as though it had been designed for a touring production) broke down twice during the first half, an occurrence that my helpful usher told me had happened three times since the show opened.

However the serious error for a West End musical was that it had the ugliest line up of Chorus Boys I have seen for many years - except for the principal young male lead called Ben James-Ellis who sang and danced so energetically he had sweat pouring down his pretty face by the end of the evening.

The fundamental problem with my evening was the audience. This is NOT a family Show - it is a serious musical with important underlying social themes.

Many parents had brought their young children (some looked as young as 9 or 10) and yet there were endless jokes about oral sex and a song that involved instructions on how to use your "fanny muscle" (whatever that may be).

The repeated references to the 1950s (who now remembers Eddie Fisher or the Gabor sisters ?) went completely over the head of the teenage girl sitting next to me whose mobile phone I could happily shoved down her throat as she texted all evening.

Why was it only me and a few dozen other gay men who laughed when the lovely Ben said he “knew what Rock Hudson felt like “if only…………..

A show that has serious things to say about 50s America, segregation, racism and equality issues ended in a feelgood mush of sentimentality. I was not surprised that on the way out boyfriends had clearly not enjoyed the show as much as their young ladies, if you are straight and male my advice is stay away.

If West End Theatre owners think they can persuade this elected politician to intervene in the world of theatrical production and start imposing surcharges on the poor theatre-going public (and the hard up families in particular) then they have got to do better than a few cans of Hairspray!

Brian Coleman was first elected to the London Assembly in June 2000. Widely outspoken he is best known for his groundbreaking policy of removing traffic calming measures
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Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP’s echoes of New Labour

The fall of Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through bold policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s strategy was so successful that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness.

But, as some say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh; when you make, as you will, bad decisions; when the list of enemies grows long; when you’ve simply had your time; you’ll fall like all the rest. Only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. The debate on 21 May between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of a sure outcome – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. That is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’être is independence; everything else is just another brick to build the path. And so its education reform cannot be either brave or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions, or parents.

The same goes for the NHS, and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature – is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: “It’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs.”

Yet the voters show signs of wearying. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren.

So, during the debate, it was Nicola Sturgeon, not the Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, or Labour’s Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs.

There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use food banks (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster). “I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish government],” Claire Austin told the panel. “You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS.” She delivered the killer line of the evening: “Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you . . . in this election?”

The list of reasonable criticisms of the SNP’s governance is growing. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off. Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried Middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nationalists’ constitution explicitly prohibits SNP elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. Although total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing.

The word “cult” has long dogged the SNP. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning, but this has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage door at times). After the debate, Claire Austin found herself at its mercy as the Nats briefed – wrongly – that she was the wife of a Tory councillor. The SNP branch in Stirling said, Tebbitishly, that if she was having to use food banks, “Maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?”

Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s home affairs spokesperson, was forced to apologise for spreading “Twitter rumours” about Austin. The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but it hasn’t gone away – it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated: they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party.

I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall, it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, and its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly exasperate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and many signs that things will get worse.

How then do you arrest your fall? The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed it. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed. 

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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