It takes guts to try and satirise an era of culture war-infected British politics that pretty effectively sends up itself. It takes even more guts to do it in the style of a Restoration comedy, full of crossdressing, courtly language and creaking corsets. So Mike Bartlett's new play ‘Scandaltown’ gets some serious points for trying, even if it ultimately falls short of sharp-toothed hilarity and lands somewhere a bit more mealy-mouthed.
The plot is so (deliberately) nonsensical that it's almost not worth explaining it. But here goes: Phoebe Virtue (a delightfully mannered Cecilia Appiah) is, as her name suggests, a pure-hearted member of Gen Z who is concerned that her brother Jack (Matthew Broome) is acting the lad in London. So she goes there, disguised as a man, to spy on him. Meanwhile, Lady Climber (a brilliantly funny Rachael Stirling) is trying to launch a political career in a world where getting cancelled is the surest way to land a telly breakfast show. Their stories collide at the Netflix masked ball, where identities are muddled and queer confusion abounds. It's all a bit like a panto with more sex, more politics and no sweets chucked at the audience (tragically).
At its best, Scandaltown is a lot of fun: as he proved with ‘King Charles III’, Bartlett has a knack for verse, and turns out Restoration-inspired insults like ‘quivering millennial quim’ for his characters to chuck at each other. There's something really smart about the way that the Regency obsession with virginity maps onto today's quest for moral purity: virtuous young Phoebe trembles in horror at the thought of buying something on Amazon. And it's full of nice gags: Lady Climber is so posh she has a butler to swipe on Tindr for her.
But what about the culture wars bit? Um, good question. In the first act, Bartlett provides ample opportunity for boomers to smugly laugh at the foibles of their Gen Z kids, with swipes at eco-hypocrisy and moral puritanism. In the second act, he switches tack, taking aim at the ugliness of a government that horribly mismanaged the pandemic while treating the public like easily-distracted toddlers. But these are both very easy targets. Instead of wading into the true moral murk of the culture wars, he issues a kind of ‘plague on both your houses’ plea for open-mindedness, tolerance and freedom of expression. It's less satire, more ‘old man yells at cloud’, albeit in a very nicely phrased way. I found myself yearning for something that actually felt contemporary and properly risky. Even the song choices were all ’60s rock instead of twenty-first-century tunes: prithee, why not some Doja Cat?
Rachel O’Riordan’s production gets some strong performances from the cast, but it never descends into the level of boisterous mayhem this kind of satire needs. And Bartlett's text has more endings than ‘Lord of the Rings’, perhaps because of underlying anxiety about the topics he's covering. It's a cautious ending for fractious times, but it's hard not to wish he'd gone out all guns blazing, railing against times that badly need a satirist's pen.