In these days of increased nationalism and demagoguery – think of your nearest blonde-bouffanted egotistical politician – A Beginner’s Guide to Populism tells us how we got here, and the dangers of letting it run unchecked. The play is broadly satirical with elements of farce, and raises plenty of laughs with its all-too-recognisable shenanigans, though not without darker notes to sound a warning.
In the constituency office of Little Middleton, we met the new prospective parliamentary candidate for the opposition – Antonia Morgan. She's joined by the suave Jeremy Taylor, sent from party HQ to establish "Project Connect", with the aim of reconnecting with the grassroots and winning the seat (which is “so far down the target list Jeremy Vine walks offscreen before he gets to it”). They meet with Parish Council leader, Colleen Cousins, who is less than impressed with Antonia’s newfound conversion to their cause; and with Brian Barber, who claims no interest in politics but is angry and very well-informed on local issues.
The Mandelsonian Jeremy, played with oily relish by Will Underwood, persuades Antonia to ditch her principles in favour of expediency. Their tactic works, but soon power goes to the head of firebrand Brian, and events run out of control with both hilarious and horrifying results. The cast capture the essence of their characters well; Isabel Palmstierna is an earnest but malleable Antonia, Beag Horn is complacent and self-righteous as Colleen, whereas Chris Townsend’s transformation from cynic to zealot drives the play.
The writing by Andy Moseley is pointed and telling, and manages to note many of the strategies feeding the rise of populism without feeling didactic. When Antonia worries her speech was over-the-top, she’s told no-one will listen to the whole speech anyway, so it’s about appealing to emotions rather than using facts. The us-and-them divisions are nicely drawn, as what makes an outsider so becomes ever more ludicrously defined, and there are references to fake news and censorship.
The pace does become a little frenetic towards the end, and the Svengali figure of Jeremy drifts from prominence; it seems surprising that such a character would allow himself to fall from power. Also, there are topics left unaddressed; as I write this, the people next to me in the cafe (OK, wine bar, but I’m trying not to appear an out-of-touch elitist) are describing how they met educated middle-class Americans who were proud to have voted Trump, but this production doesn’t address this aspect of populism’s appeal.
A Beginner’s Guide to Populism is a timely production. It lampoons populism and its insular message with great verve, but without offering simple solutions. It makes no attempt to persuade us that everything will be all right – and there is darkness behind the buffoonery.