Every couple of years the National Theatre – an institution I love in my bones – has a crack at a farcical satire of modern Britain, and every time it makes a total bollocks of it.
There was 2017’s deplorable Saint George and the Dragon, an allegory so blunt it would have struggled to pierce the skin on a bowl of custard. Then, in 2019, there was David Hare’s cack-handed adaptation of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, renamed Peter Gynt and repositioned as a skewering of the British class system. It was one of the few National Theatre plays I would have gladly walked out of, had it not been for my dogged professionalism in the service of this newspaper.
This time around we have The Manor, an absurdly clumsy, toe-curlingly earnest attempt to pass comment on Britain’s flirtations with the far right and our national propensity to hark back to an imagined past. Oh, and something about climate change.
It’s a muddy tale both literally and metaphorically, set in the titular manor in the aftermath of a biblical flood. Having accidentally-on-purpose pushed her drunk, high and abusive husband down the stairs, family matriarch Lady Diana (groan) is greeted by a stream of visitors seeking shelter from the storm.
There’s Ripley and Dora, a black mother and daughter from Balham; there’s a kindhearted old vicar; there’s a trio of alt-right wannabe politicians-cum-revolutionaries led by the oily Ted Farrier, who presents like Richard Spencer after watching a Russell Brand Ted Talk; and there’s a “fat guy” who’s been sacked by Sainsbury’s in favour of an automated checkout machine. It all plays out exactly as you would expect.
Each character represents an archetype – Diana is Old England (even when she lived in London she “never went South of the river”, which sets a low bar for joke writing that’s rarely topped), willing to grudgingly tolerate terrible things so long as it allows her to cling to The Way Things Were. Ripley, an A&E nurse and all-round top woman, is the reality of life for the 99 per cent. Dora and Diana’s daughter Isis are The Future, tasked with stemming the tide of toxic ideology and global destruction.
To be clear, there’s nothing to object to in The Manor’s message – the inability to move forward as a nation is bad, Nazis and neo-fascists and the alt-right are bad, climate change is bad. But it has nothing to say beyond these self-evident points – playing whack-a-mole with straw man arguments does not a satire make.
It’s like an algorithm trying to ape the work of Russell T Davies, getting the tenor and structure right but failing to capture any of the emotion. Never is this more evident than in the lesbian kiss between the two young girls, which adds nothing to an already muddled plot and feels like a misguided attempt to shock rather than a desire to explore a genuinely burgeoning relationship.
The whole thing feels crass, a pointless conga-line of middle-class back-slapping, each character finely crafted to make National Theatre visitors – sadly still predominantly middle aged white people like me – feel good about themselves for agreeing that racism is bad. Its desperation to sing to the choir is at best cloying and at worst cynical and I left feeling genuinely angry at yet another wasted opportunity.
The set was nice though.