Scandaltown (Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith)

Posted: April 16, 2022 in Theatre
Photo: Marc Brenner

Writer: Mike Bartlett

Director: Rachel O’Riordan


Mike Bartlett is known as a prolific writer for theatre and television and this, his second play to open in London within a week and his third currently running in the city, only adds to that reputation. Of course, Scandaltown refers to London and it asserts that nothing of much significance has changed since the the post-pandemic second half of the 17th Century. The play is a mash-up of modern social/political satire and traditional Restoration Comedy.

Pinpricking hypocrisy and pomposity, the writer takes plot lines and character names that are no less ludicrous than those featured in the original comedies and places them into a post-pandemic 21st Century setting in which corruption, substance abuse and infidelity are rife. The jokes are, in some ways, scattershot and many miss the mark, but it feels genuinely scandalous that there are still so many targets in the modern world to be aimed at.

Northerner Phoebe Virtue (Cecilia Appiah) heads south, cross dresses and embarks on a mission to find her missing brother Jack Virtue (Matthew Broome) and rescue him from a life of debauchery. She arrives in time to attend the social event of the season, the Netflix Masked Ball. This extravaganza results in a cascade of mistaken identities and it provides an opportunity for th 12-strong cast to parade in flamboyant costumes, designed by Kinnetia Isidore. 

The London elite appears before us. Lady Susan Climber (Rachel Stirling), came third in the 2015 series of The Apprentice, but suffered a fall from grace following some ill-advised comments on social media. She hires as her consultant Hannah Tweetwell (Aysha Kala), who guides her into a liaison with Matt Eton (Richard Goulding), the randy and duplicitous Secretary of State for Procurement. Bartlett does not try too hard to conceal similarities between many characters and real life counterparts.

The humour is risqué, but also risk-free, not threatening to give real offence to anyone. The play flounders when Bartlett wades too deep in the swamp of party politics and when he takes it all much too seriously and lectures the audience. Otherwise, his joke-a-minute style keeps the ridiculous comedy bubbling and director Rachel O’Riordan’s nimble production maintains the flavour of Restoration Comedy throughout. The actors all seem to have a whale of a time, given complete freedom to go over the top.

Bartlett stitches the second act together with a potentially glorious running gag and then, unforgivably, fails to deliver the punchline. It is an up and down ride, but, overall, the laughs far outnumber the yawns and, in these grim days, that is a cause for gratitude.

Performance date: 14 April 2022

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