Moira Buffini’s ‘Manor’ is a misfiring state-of-the-nation satire that doesn’t work, but is enjoyably messy nonetheless.
Not for the first time and not for the last time, it’s a play in which a British country house is turned into an allegory for the state of the nation. On the night of an apocalyptic storm, icy aristo Diana (Nancy Carroll) takes in an improbably diverse series of waifs and strays to her fading coastal manor, Burnt Maple, a family pile that she is determined to preserve at any cost. In comes the kindly local priest, a Black London nurse and her daughter who were holidaying nearby, a, uh, fascist cell… and a comedy fat guy.
But before all that: mariticide! In a bizarre schlock horror first scene, the play opens on Diana’s husband Pete playing air guitar to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ ‘Tupelo’ on an antique rifle, whilst in the grip of a magic mushroom and calvados bender. A one-hit-wonder with a band who Diana describes as ‘a sort of proto-Libertines’, he’s an amalgam of Pete Doherty and Julian Cope, though it soon becomes irrelevant when he rants menacingly at Diana and she responds by shoving him down the stairs, apparently killing him – to the extremely tepid distress of Diana and her straitlaced daughter Isis (Liadán Dunlea).
To be fair, they are distracted by the arrival of their first guests, as local vicar Ted (David Hargreaves) shows up with intensely decent NHS nurse Ripley (Michelle Austin) and her sulky 18-year-old daughter Dora (Shaniqua Okwok). Black Londoners from Balham who were holidaying nearby, Diana mostly just seems puzzled by them – not so much racism, as bewilderment at people whose lives are so different to her own: her idea of chat is to weakly declare she’s never been south of the river but did once have a flat in Notting Hill.
The second half is basically nonsense
The shape of the play – which is directed by Buffini’s sister Fiona – becomes more apparent with the next lot of guests, a trio of nativist fascists from a far-right organisation called Albion. They’re led by Shaun Evans as the intense, poetic, idiosyncratic cult leader Ted; then there’s his dopey, mixed-race right-hand man Anton (Peter Bray); and finally Ted‘s girlfriend Ruth (Amy Forrest), a blind ethno-historian whose vile writings give the organisation its ideological core – and also mean she can no longer work, as Albion opposes women having jobs. Finally, there’s Perry (Edward Judge), a local dimwit and sympathiser with Ted’s cause who everyone laughs at for being fat.
As ‘Manor’ heads for the interval it’s actually quite intriguing. The fat jokes are definitely a bit much (being charitable, you could say they exist to show how horrible the other characters are). But that accepted, it feels like the Buffinis have poised the pieces perfectly for a weightier second half.
In fact the second half is basically nonsense, a daft ideological clash that’s too silly to hit home forcefully, but too serious to work as an out-and-out comedy. If the question is kind of ‘how do the pillars of England – the aristocracy, the bohemians, the church, the ethnic minority city dwellers who power the NHS – withstand the rising tides of populist fascism fanned by climate disaster?’ then the answer is rendered somewhat meaningless by how far-fetched Albion is. Yes, Britain clearly has a problem with rightwing demagogues (as do many countries, of course). But none of them are poetry-spouting savants who believe women shouldn’t work. Of course it’s Buffini’s right to pen an interesting character, and Evans has a ball, playing a figure more akin to Charles Manson than Nigel Farage. But it just makes the whole semi-farcical ding-dong the characters have over what to do next feel a bit pointless: ‘Manor’ raises the big questions, then answers them with an unsatisfyingly off-hand glibness.
But while it definitely isn’t a good state of the nation play – or even, to be honest, a good play – it does have a campy, ’80s soap opera energy that I basically enjoyed in spite of myself. Confrontations! Shootings! Killings! Coming back from the dead! Inadvisable snogging! It’s all here in a nothing-if-not action-packed second half, with everyone from Carroll down hamming away for all they’re worth. It’s not ‘good’. But as hot messes go, I’ve seen much worse.