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Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Manor, review: an odd mix of pantomime and socio-political evaluation

As Moira Buffini, writer of hit Netflix film The Dig, rightly asserted in her curtain-raiser piece about her new play in the paper this week, the manor house is a site of special interest right now. With the past of stately homes ever more problematic to the present, they’re fertile ground.

It’s conceivable – and I’d say desirable – that someone writes a topical comedy looking at the current ‘culture wars’ battles surrounding grand old heritage piles and difficult chapters in their history.

Manor isn’t such a play, though. This is not a piece about the National Trust or the like. Buffini’s nightmarish, darkly comic ‘state of the nation’ drama gives a survey slanted not towards the encroachments of progressive politics but the dangers of the far-right.

In an opening of literal and metaphorical ruination, storm clouds hang over a financially beleaguered coastal manor house in which, answering the apparent climate catastrophe outside, domestic turbulence abounds. “The world’s about to be consumed by the system that we live in,” Owen McDonnell’s wastrel lord of the manor, lost to magic mushrooms and clinging to memories of a pop career, prophesies, firing pot-shots at mantelpiece ornaments. “You took my youth,” his wife Diana, a splendidly withering Nancy Carroll, snarls, their acrimony shoved into abrupt silence when he tumbles down the stairs dominating Lez Brotherston’s nicely skewed-perspective set.

Into the murky, candle-lit scene (with direction by Buffini’s capable sister, Fiona) stagger a motley crew of fugitives – nearby residents and passers-by – from the biblical flood. Most entertaining is the eccentric vicar (David Hargreaves’ Fiske), all benign imperviousness, gathering folk for prayers, offering innocuous pieties. In contrast to this placatory figure, plus a mother and daughter from Balham, the former an NHS nurse who mucks in with medical help, is the unsavoury character of Ted Farrier, head of a far-right group called Albion.

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