Known for her wickedly accurate voicing of Edwina Currie in Spitting Image, Jessica Martin is ideal casting for another prominent Jewish Tory gal: Shirley Porter. This larger-than-life anti-heroine was leader of Westminster Council from 1983 to 1991. Martin’s Porter is vociferous, loud and colourful (literally, in a series of 80s power outfits that the Dallas and Dynasty cast would have killed for), revelling in walking all over her subordinates and unafraid to show her contempt for the disadvantaged of Westminster.
The Margaret Thatcher wannabe (dubbed ‘Thatcher’s municipal mini-me’ in a programme note) is an equally strident grocer’s daughter, famously of Jack Cohen the Jewish market boy who created the Tesco empire.
Gregory Evans bases his exuberant comic-strip satire on his 2009 radio play (based in turn on Andrew Hosken’s incisive exposé, Nothing Like a Dame). It’s played with verve and at breakneck speed on Gregor Donnelly’s set, resembling a high-tech 3D Monopoly board, psychedelic Mondrian-like squares changing colour, cleverly appropriate for the Tory Council leader who scandalously sold homes for votes. This she did by cynically moving poorer Labour voters out of key wards to sell off their homes to more prosperous Tory voters (the gerrymandering implied in the play’s portmanteau-word name). The cast stride purposefully between square platforms at different heights that echo the verticals.
News images of the time and of the Grenfell Tower tragedy are projected onto the panels. Evans and director Anthony Biggs, artistic director of the new Playground Theatre, invoke that infamous disaster in reworking the bio-drama for the stage at this venue just minutes’ walk away from the burnt-out ruin of Grenfell Tower.
Martin’s Shirley multitasks, keeping Westminster tidy and installing superloos on the credit side, more than outweighed on the debit side by such outrageous schemes as selling off cemeteries to property speculators for a few pence each and ‘Building Stable Communities’ by ruthlessly removing the homeless and the mentally ill from those vital marginal wards.
The rest of Biggs’ excellent cast play multiple roles, switching effortlessly between them with the twitch of a facial mask and change of stance, step and costume.
Jack Klaff is perfect as Porter’s put-upon Deputy and as husband Leslie Porter, while James Horne is convincing as her father Sir Jack Cohen. It’s telling that they are referred to not by name but simply as ‘husband’ and ‘father’, satellites revolving around Shirley’s blinding sun. Horne also gets to play her nemesis, the District Auditor. You know she’s in trouble when he offers biscuits from Sainsbury’s not Tesco’s.
Amanda Waggott is terrific as a despairing Tory ‘wet’ housing officer and, conversely, her replacement, a barking-mad, gun-toting pro-gerrymandering doctor. Omar Baroud is wonderfully, equally ineffectual as a Labour councillor opposing her and a council officer working for her.
Martin shows her mettle as a celebrated leading lady in musicals, breaking into Fame, backed by the cast, all relishing Lily Howkins’ witty choreography. Prodigy’s Firestarter provides a more sombre closing backing track. It all makes for bracing satire to relish.
By Judi Herman
Photos by Simon Bohrsmann
Shirleymander runs until Saturday 16 June. 7.30pm (Mon-Sat), 2.30pm (Thu & Sat only). £25, £15 concs. The Playground Theatre, W10 6RQ. 020 8960 0110. www.theplaygroundtheatre.london