While Britain starts to wake up to the greatest political shift since World War II, and a Labour Party victory unknown in this century (one which has effectively demolished any opposition for the next five years), the West End theatre is also beginning to come back into the political arena. With very few exceptions, the commercial theatre in Britain has been non-political for a quarter of a century; whereas in the 1960's it would have been hard to find a new play not in some measure concerned with the fate of the nation, the arrival of Lady Thatcher seemed to paralyse British dramatists to the point where David Hare was almost alone in his determination to take the national temperature onstage.
Already, as if sensing the change in the wind even before the pollsters, our theatre is becoming re-politicized; the great dramatic hit of the spring has been Tom and Clem by a first-time dramatist, the actor Stephen Churchett. His play, set during the Potsdam Conference of l945, is quite simply an examination of the roots of postwar socialism seen through two very different career diplomats, both of whom had recently come to power in the election that ended the wartime rule of Winston Churchill.
One of those men is Prime Minister Clement Attlee, the pipe-smoking bureaucrat of little charisma but tremendous efficiency; the other is the louche, gay, renegade backbench MP Tom Driberg, for whom socialism often meant little more than a freedom to pick up sailors of lower social standing for sexual purposes. If Attlee was the head of postwar socialism, Driberg was its romantic heart, forever more impressed by the possibility of revolution than the need to do any actual work for it. In two breathtaking performances, from Alec McCowen as Attlee and Michael Gambon (late of Broadway's Skylight) as Driberg, we get a stage debate which could hardly be more topical.
And there is more to come: while Sir Peter Hall's triumphant takeover of the Old Vic (Sunday performances, ten shows a week, five major new and classic plays in repertoire) gives us Waste, a cabinet drama by Harley Granville Barker which, written all of a century ago, is still as topical as the headlines which now ritually surround any politician with an even vaguely questionable sex life, we are also about to get Hugh Whitemore's Letter of Resignation, which deals with the final days in power of Harold Macmillan in the early 1960's.
Nor are American politics entirely overlooked, at least not on the musical front: JFK, due in from Dublin, is a stage life (and death) of Kennedy, while The Fix is, at the Warehouse, a radical new show about an American President cheerfully described as "a combination of Clinton and Caligula." -- By Sheridan Morley