Alongside Trump, Brexit must be one of the most popular subjects at this year’s Fringe. About eight shows explicitly mention the term. Of all these, the bluntly titled Brexit is likely the most straightforward and professional, examining more the political fallout than the cultural significance. Of course, while a popular topic, Brexit is hard to examine given the uncertainty that surrounds it, being described within the play as “not a thing but a process”. Therefore, Brexit focuses on this uncertainty and indecision, which makes for entertaining theatrical insights into politics, but it also lacks the passion and boldness of those that tackle the subject directly.
In Britain 2020, and after a long conveyor-belt of British Prime Ministers, Adam Masters (Timothy Bentinck) is elected to negotiate the UK’s exit deal form the European Union. Masters is a compromise choice, called the “biggest Eurosceptic in the cabinet who voted Remain”, but behind-the-scenes his “unifying” presence is revealed as apathy. Masters has no principles, wishing to appease both sides without acting. Therefore, he plots to pit two opposing MPs, the pompous hard Brexiter Simon Cavendish (Hal Cruttenden) against sarcastic soft Brexiter Diana Purdy (Pippa Evans), against each other so that nothing is accomplished. The PM’s plan is to wait it out, plunging the country into a “constant state of doubt and uncertainty” and “frenetic inertia”, where leaving the EU is an ongoing and endless progress. An eternal Brexit.
Playwrights Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky expertly and wickedly describe the indecisiveness of the UK, ridiculing what senior political advisor Paul Connell (Mike McShane) calls a “hokey pokey government”. Brexit is full of such sharp statements, mostly targeted towards the deadlock and mutual loathing of British politics. Yet while this target is not unworthy, it is an easy way of satirising everyone while offending nobody. Ironically, despite the play scorning the PM’s lack of commitment and ideology, it also avoids choosing a side on Brexit by lightly mocking all those involved equally. Scenes involve Masters moving, in a pantomime fashion, between Purdy and Cavendish saying the same thing to both. Or Connell reading the Daily Mail and The Guardian making the same judgements. These moments demonstrate Brexit’s overall viewpoint; that both sides are as bad as each other.
Additionally, while Brexit describes the state of British politics wonderfully, it does detract from the plot’s momentum, given that little comes from the action itself. The characters and situations are more mouthpieces for witty summations than for delivering an engaging story. Although Hal Cruttenden is deliciously smarmy as Cavendish, a caricature of elite, aristocratic conservatives, his character does not extend beyond his stereotype. Things are worse for Pippa Evans, whose Purdy does not even have a stereotype to follow. While the extreme-right Tories like Cavendish are easily mocked, center-right ‘soft Brexiters’ like Purdy have no real defining qualities. Perhaps it would have been more balanced for Purdy to somehow be a hard Remaining Labour member, but Brexit sticks closely to the Conservatives.
Like how Brexit uses these two opposing MPs to state inter-party factions, a parallel story between Masters and EU Representative Helena Brandt (Jo Caufield) explores UK-EU relations. Again, such discussions are fun and clever, but the conversation is confusing in how it relates to the main plot, and the whole thing feels cynically pointless.
Much like any political play, your attitudes towards Brexit will affect how you feel about Brexit. This is not a binary case where if you voted Remain you will love it and if you voted Leave you will hate it. Rather, the intensity and seriousness with which you hold the decision will affect your reaction. For those unwilling to abide a relatively easygoing and surprisingly apolitical farce, Brexit may have you leaving for the exit, but those able to negotiate a compromise with their beliefs, and indulge in a clever and funny play, might remain entertained.
Pleasance Courtyard – Beyond (Venue 33)
Until 26 August
Image: David Burns