Inside story

The accumulated knowledge of two lobby hacks can't enliven a Westminster farce.

It was the Sun wot wrote it! Or in this case, the Sun's Whitehall editor, Clodagh Hartley, with her accomplice John Higginson, of Metro, who have scripted a "riotous satire" for the Tabard Theatre in Chiswick.

The journalists from these two mighty organs -- sorry, it's catching -- have constructed a light Westminster farce about the expenses scandal, that could have been nicely timed to lob a "plague on both your houses" sort of hex just in time for the election (for the purposes of this play, the Lib Dems don't exist). As things stand, however, I think the politicians can sleep easy in their beds. About this matter, at least.

Now, imagine the most riotous satire, in your experience: Swift's A Modest Proposal perhaps, or in recent times, anything by Chris Morris. Now take everything that is riotous or indeed satirical out of it. Replace Iannucci with innuendo, if you will. The toothless inanity you are left with might be quite like Stiffed!

To be fair, the play is supposed to be featherweight. The cast list sets up a fanciful Restoration comedy mood: Paula Stiff (matron!) and George Moore-Lys (fnarr, fnarr!) are the Chancellor and her Shadow respectively, and both about to be embarrassed by the revelations of honest Sally Pauper, the journalist who is, of course, the heroine of this tale. Christopher Hone's set aptly underlines the play's flimsiness, as it appears to be made out of paper, with wiggly lines drawn on in felt-tip, like a pop-up book. The Commons is quite literally a House of Card, with neat pull-out sections enabling a seat here, a bar there. It positively invites a slick, Feydeau farce-style use of its many doors; a hysterical vortex of entrances and exits.

But Dan Herd's direction never delivers this sort of drive, which would have been a welcome shot in the arm to an anaemic script. The only actor to push into the realms of physical grotesquerie is Mark Wall as the Daily Telegraph editor, and he just ends up looking like he's in the wrong show, and head-butting innocent bystanders.

It all started promisingly enough, with the actors wandering on informally and looking about them. Unfortunately, on the night I was there, four latecomers also wandered on informally, looking about them, and I had high hopes for some time that they were part of the show and about to do something spectacular to save it. Disappointingly they weren't, and didn't.

One problem that soon becomes apparent is that the story to be satirised is itself so preposterous -- a real case of truth being stranger than fiction -- that the exaggeration typical of satirical swipes is left with nowhere to go. There is little more ludicrous than taking public money to build your ducks a house, so the play's equivalent, the statue of Churchill designed to ward off the foxes, grows pale and uninteresting by comparison.

The actors, though competent, are under-used. There are glimmers: Laura Evelyn's Sally Pauper is a pleasing straight woman, who, when drunk, has a kooky habit of speaking journalistic cant in heavily flagged quotation marks. Brendan Murphy, as Tory new boy Quentin Dellaware, has a Rob Brydon vibe going on, and also appears to speak in jittery inverted commas. There are inchoate hints here about the sound bite habit that bedevils both poacher and gamekeeper. Both characters' promising biographical details (she: lonely and loveless, he: gay) are picked up and then simply thrown out, however.

The atmosphere perks up somewhat when the auditorium is co-opted into the House of Commons, and we audience members are courted by the frontbenchers as they stand up and sound off like wheedling mountebanks: I can understand the apparent need of backbenchers to heckle like rowdy schoolchildren at a pantomime. Michael Martin is represented by a tiny puppet, subject to the tweaks and pulls of strings on both sides, and this reduction of Speaker to a plaintively screeching homunculus is where the satire suddenly grows teeth.

Considering this was written by "insiders" and supposedly reveals the "inner workings of parliament, the press and politicians" (sic) there is nothing here we didn't already know. We know when we've been stiffed, all right.

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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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