Michael Portillo - Council taxing

Theatre - Local government is as boring on stage as in any town hall, writes Michael Portillo

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Having dealt, during my two-year stint as minister for local government, with stirring issues such as revenue support grants, capital approvals, the single regeneration budget and rate capping, I suppose I find the relationship between Whitehall and England's town halls more interesting than most people do. Even so, I can attest that it is a really boring subject, and you would be ill-advised to write a play about it. David Edgar has done just that and so has only himself to blame for the turgid result.

In Playing With Fire, the minister (Alistair Petrie) is dissatisfied with a Labour council in northern England that is failing to meet his performance targets. He despatches Alex Clifton (Emma Fielding), a highly politicised civil servant in the new Labour mould, to "advise" Wyverdale Council on how to raise its game. If it does not change its ways she will recommend that central government take over the authority's functions.

The humour of the play (such as it is) hinges on the clash between the stereotypical career woman from the south and the stereotypical male chauvinist councillors with whom she is thrown together.

The portrayal of the northerners is both sentimental and patronising. The council leader, George Aldred (David Troughton), believes that market-testing and performance indicators are rubbish, but is not as stupid as the know-it-alls from Whitehall assume. Trevor Cooper produces a rather over-the-top but entertaining Councillor Barraclough. He is a cliche-ridden, call- a-spade-a-spade character who would tell you, to yer face like, that you don't get aught for naught.

I used to meet those types, those horny-handed sons of Tammany Hall, when they visited my ministerial office. They trekked down to explain why, having failed to collect the poll tax or council house rents, they should be spared capping on the outrageous tax that they proposed to levy in the coming year. Soft-hearted sucker that I am, I was sometimes moved to clemency by their pitiable incompetence.

Fielding, winner of numerous awards for her previous roles, is just unbearable in this one. Her character is supposed to be antipathetic and brash, but Fielding's almost unrelenting stridency frays the nerves like fingernails down a blackboard. The play's romantic interest occurs between her and a Muslim councillor, Riaz Rafique (Paul Bhattacharjee). For a love story to work, the audience has to feel a modicum of concern for the characters involved. She is too horrible and he too dull to elicit a spark of interest in us, and their affair arises from nothing other than the demands of a flagging storyline.

Act II opens (to a smaller audience than Act I) with a public inquiry into a race riot. It is based on testimony given to hearings following disturbances in Oldham and Bradford. When David Hare used inquiry transcripts in The Permanent Way (about rail disasters) he held his audience enthralled, but when Edgar devotes a quarter of his play to an inquiry-room drama, it seems merely derivative.

To add to the play's woes, it is far too long. The director, Michael Attenborough, is possibly aware of that, which would explain why his actors take it at breakneck speed. Some of the dialogue is unintelligible. At the play's end Alex delivers a frightfully important conclusion. But her delivery was rushed, the writing was convoluted, and I would be hard-pressed to tell you what she meant.

The play's message is that interference by central government leads to cuts in services which, in turn, result in an explosion of racial tension. So Edgar apparently ends up on the side of inefficient local government with its poor services to council taxpayers. It is a bit simplistic.

Edgar's northern brigade fumes against how government grant schemes work in practice. They oblige candidate housing estates to compete against each other to appear the most deprived and wretched. Nowadays it is recognised that this produces low self-esteem. Edgar also rather leadenly argues that multiculturalism has gone too far because it has emphasised diversity at the expense of cohesion, and fighting racism at the expense of fighting sexism. He has arrived rather late on both those bandwagons.

It is perhaps more interesting that it is a disaffected Labour councillor who becomes the directly elected mayor on a programme that echoes the extreme right. Edgar recognises that there is less distance between Labour's urban working-class support and BNP voters than Labour generally admits. So I wonder why he straightforwardly calls Labour "Labour", but coyly renames the BNP "Britannia". Was he afraid of giving the extremists "the oxygen of publicity"?

This was a wearisome evening. When I was minister for local government I often found the work tedious and unsatisfying. But the real thing has nothing on this play.

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