Scandaltown – Lyric Hammersmith – review

Satire on modern society is fun but toothless

★★★

Production photo from Scandaltwon at Lyric Hammersith in London 2022
Richard Goulding and Luke Hornsby in Scandaltown. Photo Marc Brenner

Scandaltown at the Lyric Hammersmith promises a ‘decadent world of sex, hypocrisy, parties and power’. The theatre website warns about ‘nudity, drug use and smoking’. If that leads you to expect something edgy, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Mike Bartlett’s new play is a clever but underwhelming pastiche restoration comedy. It purports to be shocking but barely raises an eyebrow. A scene with people in their underwear miming sexual acts is hardly going to cause a fit of the vapours amongst today’s audiences. The smell of herbal cigarettes was a bit overpowering though. 

Scandaltown is Mike Bartlett‘s third play to open in London in just over a month, which is a rare achievement. We’ve already had the revival of his first ever play Cock and The 47th which adopts the style of a Shakespearean tragedy to imagine Trump standing at the next Presidential election.

So Mike Bartlett is prominent but is he preeminent? Well, he can certainly write clever, amusing dialogue and his plays are never less than interesting, but, from what I’ve seen, there is a lack of depth in what he does. And I include probably his most famous work, King Charles III.
It’s not that Scandaltown is bad. In fact, it’s a lot of fun. Mr Bartlett takes the style of a restoration comedy to satirise today’s rich and famous. He is adept in his use of the conventions and language of that genre. The trouble is, how many of us are familiar with restoration comedy? A better reference point might be panto, which it certainly resembles- in a good way. The plot is as complicated and ludicrous as a restoration comedy, or indeed the Netflix thriller (I’ve just arched Anatomy Of A Scandal).
Restoration Comedy is the name given to plays that were produced when theatres reopened after Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan government closed them for nearly 20 years. The ‘restoration’ refers to the return of the monarchy. In fact, Charles II loved theatre, and encouraged the mockery of an older generation’s puritanism as well as the shocking portrayal of an immoral high society. You don’t see as many plays from this period as you do from the Elizabethan but The Beaux’ Stratagem pops up every so often, as does The Country Wife, which for centuries was regarded as the filthiest play ever written.
Today’s theatres have reopened after a period of closure, so you can see why it might have seemed like a good idea to do a pastiche of a restoration comedy, and in doing so, look at today’s immorality, hypocrisy, intergenerational conflicts. However, it soon becomes clear that there aren’t enough sins of the flesh to put on those bones of a 17th century comedy. Firstly, our theatres have only been closed a couple of years, and, secondly, there’s been no major generational clash over matters of morality since the 1970s. The ‘decadence’ of casual sex and drug use has been around for a long time, so we’re hardly shocked by it.
The play admits this and adopts a more nuanced position as it goes on, but the softer the punches, the more power it loses despite the sharpness and pace of Rachel O’Riordan’s direction.
The big issues of the day, and ones that do to an extent divide generations, like Black Lives Matter, #MeToo or attitudes to trans women are pretty much ignored. Here the target is social media which is a low hanging fruit on a well-trodden path.
The set, designed by Good Teeth, tells us straight away that this is going to be more like panto fun than penetrating satire. There are painted flat clouds filling the top half of the high proscenium opening and various curtains provide the background. Quite often a couple of pieces of furniture set the scene. Now, this may have been the style of late 17th century theatre, but it also says we’re in cartoon land. As do the outlandish but hilarious costumes by Kinnetia Isidore.
Restoration Comedy was also known as the Comedy of Manners. Some of the dialogue might remind you of the Importance of Being Earnest or an adaptation of a Jane Austen novel even though both of those examples are more recent than Restoration Comedy. And of course, hearing the restrained language of the past combined with modern day swearing and references to targeting and the like is amusing.
The characters are given names that tell us about their roles within the story such as Phoebe Virtue, Freddy Peripheral and Lady Susan Climber. This seems to tell us not to expect any depth to them. So it is actually a pleasure to find that while there may be caricatures, they’re well drawn and what they say is funny.
Production photo from Scandaltwon at Lyric Hsmmersith in London 2022
Rachael Stirling and Henry Everett in Scandaltown. Photo Marc Brenner

The actors are able to make a meal of their roles. They’re all good, but I’ll pick out a few.  Rachael Stirling as Lady Susan climber, a vicious, self centred, (well, they’re nearly all self centred) reality show celebrity with a smile thaty could charm a traffic warden and a cutting tongue that could open a can. Richard Goulding as Matt Eaton, a David Cameron look-alike politician, whose slimy salesman style epitomises all we hate about today’s self serving liars. He gets a laugh every time he opens his mealy mouth.

I’ll also mention the two young people barely out of stage school: Cecilia Appiah as Phoebe Virtue, a moral young woman from the north who goes to rescue her brother Jack, played by Matthew Broome, from the immorality of London. Once in London after a short time disguised as a man and what Restoration Comedy or panto would be complete without some crossdressing. She gets sucked into the London life.
The main plot concerns Lady Susan Climber trying to make a comeback, after some faux pas has caused her to be cancelled, by employing a social media consultant. The latter turns out secretly to want to destroy her, for reasons which become apparent, but seem, when we find out, somewhat feeble. Even the would-be explosive revelation of how she proposes to carry out the destruction turns out to be a damp squib.
There are many other plots concerning mistaken identity and surprising parentage. But the play comes to a conclusion that is liberal rather than libertarian in a way that a restoration comedy definitely wouldn’t be. The promsed Rottweiler turns out to be toothless.
So, yes, it’s inconsequential, but as I may have already mentioned, it is fun with many laugh-out-loud moments.
Scandaltown is running at the Lyric in Hammersmith until 14 May 2022. Tickets from lyric.co.uk/shows
Paul was given a press ticket by the producers.
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Scandaltown - review
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Scandaltown - review
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Review of Scandaltown, a new satirical comedy by Mike Bartlett, as seen at the Lyric Hammersmith in London. It's funny but how shocking is it?
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One Minute Theatre Reviews
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