Entertainment & Arts

Phill Jupitus sends up the Big Society

Image caption Phill Jupitus stars in the show, which mixes music hall humour with political satire. Photo: Tim Smith

Comedian Phill Jupitus is starring in a new political satire called Big Society!, a spoof music hall show poking fun at Prime Minister David Cameron, the coalition government and pretty much everyone else in a position of power.

So is this a return to an age-old tradition of sending up the establishment on stage?

Jupitus plays an old-style variety entertainer as the band bashes out rollicking music hall songs and a cardboard cut-out of King Edward VII looks down from the royal box.

This show is set 100 years ago and is being staged at Leeds City Varieties, probably the country's finest remaining music hall.

But this bawdy comedy is no period piece - the targets of the jokes make sure of that.

When Jupitus appears as a David Cameron figure with a ventriloquist's puppet resembling Nick Clegg on his knee, he sings a catchy number about how "everyone will have to labour for free in our Big Society".

It is a send-up of the coalition government and Cameron's much vaunted and equally derided dream of a more caring, sharing society.

The show is not just taking aim at politicians, however.

The "man from the Double Standard", the newspaper reporter who "puts the poison in the printing press", is the pantomime villain.

Another pleasant ditty conceals lyrics about heavy-handed policing: "The head of the accused/Acquired a most alarming bruise/I blame the station wall that he chanced to walk into."

"It's not just the Conservatives," says Rod Dixon, artistic director of theatre company Red Ladder, of the show's targets. "I use a very old-fashioned term - it's the ruling class."

Political theatre and satire have always been around, but Big Society! is being held up as a return to a tub-thumping style that has been rare since the 1980s.

"For a while it just wasn't hip to be political," says Jupitus, who toured with the likes of Billy Bragg at pro-Labour Red Wedge events before the 1987 general election.

He insists he is not doing this show simply because the Conservatives are now back in power.

"I wouldn't want people to think I've been waiting in a hole and have only started shouting about the government now - I've been shouting about them for the last 30 years regardless of their political stripe because they've been messing it up."

Image caption Nick Clegg is represented as a ventriloquist's dummy on David Cameron's lap

But overtly political theatre waned because young people started to switch off from politics at the end of the 1980s, and became even more disconnected after Tony Blair came to power in 1997, he believes.

"It was the ecstasy good-time generation, late 80s, early 90s, and the Loaded lad. It all became a little bit decadent for a while.

"When Blair got in, there was an initial 'Is this going to be the change?'. And then 'No'."

The play was written by Boff Whalley of the anarchist band Chumbawamba, whose members famously poured a bucket of ice over then Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott at the Brit Awards in 1998.

Red Ladder has been producing plays with strong left-wing themes for more than 40 years, but Dixon says the battle is no longer between Labour and Tory, but between Westminster and the Occupy generation.

"Politics has become hollow and bland," Dixon says. "It doesn't matter whether it's Labour or Conservative, Lib Dem, whatever."

But the return of the Conservative party to government has reawakened a class struggle within these performers, and that lies at the heart of the show. Dixon derides several members of the cabinet as "millionaire Eton-educated schoolboys".

'Spitting Image material'

"That's why it's timely," he says. "We've really gone back to the toffs."

And that makes them easier to lampoon than their Labour predecessors, he says. "Oh absolutely. They are more Spitting Image material, definitely."

Recent years have seen powerful plays with political themes, while a spate of "verbatim" works has been based on witness statements and official inquiries about specific events from the Srebrenica UN war crimes hearings to the English summer riots.

"Really dull," is Dixon's verdict on verbatim theatre. "I would find it really difficult to make that kind of show because I find it really difficult to watch them.

"I've seen some really dreary verbatim theatre. Really dreary. And very often it's retrospective. Whereas this is about the here and now."

But there have been stirrings of a resurgence in playful works that satirise an elite rather than examining an event.

A musical called Nicked, about the coalition government, was performed at the High Tide Festival in Suffolk last year.

That was developed as part of the Coalition event at Theatre503 in London at the end of 2010, which paired playwrights with artists from other disciplines to try to make sense of the new political era.

At the time, joint artistic directors Tim Roseman and Paul Robinson complained that "playful social critique is basically invisible at the theatre".

"I think it will catch on. I think it's back in vogue," Red Ladder's Rod Dixon says.

"There are a lot of young theatre makers who have been getting in touch with me. One of them emailed me and said 'I want to know how to make a piece of theatre that provokes people to take direct action.'

"I went 'Oh wow, good luck with that one.' There's a new wave."

So can theatre inspire people to take action?

"I would love to say yes to that but no," he replies. "I think it provokes conversation. And those conversations are necessary.

"This is entertainment. I don't think I necessarily want people to take direct action as a result of the plays we make. I want them to just re-engage."

Big Society! opens at Leeds City Varieties on Wednesday.

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