A fierce storm. A group of opinionated strangers. A past-its-best Manor House, home to a past-her-best Lady Diana (not that one). Circumstance. Characters. Conflict. A dramatic set-up that seems all too familiar.
In trying to be all things, Manor really has nothing to offer at all.
If you have never consumed any television, film, or book at all… like ever in your life… the events of Moira Buffini’s new, though far from original play, Manor, may come as a surprise. But if you are, well, alive, there’s a fair chance you’ve seen this done before. Only better. Much, much better.
149 ½ minutes too long
For the first minute or so, there’s a great deal of promise as the majesty of designer Lez Brotherston’s just-pre-dilapidation English Manor House is revealed. It is part-authentic, part-cartoon, part-fairground ride. It leads to small gasps of wonder from the audience.
The brief reverie is shattered by caterwauling. Owen McDonnell is the Lady of the Manor’s husband, cradling a gun as he dances to rock. His character notes may summarise him as a soon-to-be-murdered-but-maybe-not-really, ex-one-hit-wonder, bit-of-rough-turned-middle-aged-mushroom-taking-has-been. Or Pete. Though his diction is unclear and his “on drugs” acting, questionable, this may be just first night nerves. After all, the set looks so good…
The performance proves to be more portentous of the remaining 150 minutes. 150 minutes may sound longer than two and a half hours. It certainly feels it.
The, erm, “plot”
There’s little more to the “plot” than was in my introduction. Little that’s either surprising or useful. It is more like a group of unfinished works-in-progress, thrown together, hoping for the best. To show willing, let’s follow the advertising and focus on the easier-to-sell ‘stars’ in the lead roles.
Ted (Shaun Evans) is the leader of Albion, a party who take the misguided patriotism of the disenfranchised and massage it into racist, sexist, violence, and fascism. He is one of the strangers seeking – or in his case, demanding – shelter at the Manor for himself, his deputy Anton (Peter Bray) and his girlfriend Ruth (Amy Forrest). Though Ruth – who is blind… obviously – arrives later. He has left her in the car.
Has Ted beaten Ruth? Are Anton and Ruth in love? Why does Ted have so much control over Anton? Nobody is asking any of these questions. The answers are blindingly obvious (no pun intended).
If Evans is tired of being cast as every mother’s favourite from playing the pre-John Thaw John Thaw in ITV’s Endeavour, you can see why he jumped at this role. On paper at least.
Ted might be imagined as a terrorist in politician’s clothing. A suave, smooth-talking, boy-next-door whose appeal makes him even more dangerous. In fact, there is no grounding to his character. He spends his time either shouting for no reason or trying to fuck Lady Diana (again, not that one). And he does neither with much feeling. He has the appeal of Adolf and stirs as much fear as Farage.
There is the germ of a thought here about how we see bravery in the historic battles fought by the English, but only violence in the actions of the contemporary self-proclaimed patriots. Given more time, with characters given more depth, it could be a provocative comment on the state-of-the-nation.
But it appears Buffini may have got side-tracked. Or bored.
Casting one character aside, Buffini delves back into the pick-and-mix of controversy to create another out of a single-dimension. Eventually, everyone in the Manor reveals their unsurprising cliché. It’s like a group of attention-seeking children, all professing to having migraines more deserving of sympathy than the others’ headaches.
It’s a rollcall of top ten tired traits. The friendless only child. The lesbian teenager. The gay vicar. The single mother nurse (studying to be a doctor). The outcast. The orphan ex-criminal (with a heart of gold). The drug-addled has-been. The wife-beater. The political extremist. The less-abled woman.
Sometimes you need a cliché or two for the audience to ‘get’ straightaway. But this could be a reunion for short-lived EastEnders’ characters. Or every plot line involving Ian Beale.
At least a soap opera spreads things over months or years. Buffini crams it all into a couple of hours. They have no room to breathe, let alone develop. You won’t believe in any of them. Even if you did, you won’t like them.
Don’t tell me more
Those ten traits cover nine characters. (I say characters. They’re more pencil sketches than anything fully drawn.) That’s because the political extremist is also the wife beater. Though I doubt you needed me to tell you that.
The tenth is Lady Diana – a name used solely to amuse us. This is the standard of the jokes dribbled out occasionally, appearing as awkward, unwanted, and uncomfortable as Meghan Markle at the Daily Mail’s front desk.
Diana is played by Nancy Carroll, known for playing Anne Tennant in The Crown. I have no idea what Anne Tennant is known for. Carroll says – there is no delivery, comic or otherwise – most of these gags.
Diana used to be a rebel. She likes sex. She’s rubbish at business. She’s scared of being alone. She loves the Manor. She doesn’t know how to love.
We know these things because she tells us. Like we know she wants to fuck Ted because, a propos of nothing, she invites him to her room and can’t keep her hands off him. They nearly fuck on the kitchen table yet display no spark, no chemistry. They tell us they want to fuck, so our belief is unimportant. This is an approach taken throughout.
It’s how we discover her daughter, Isis – “the God, not the terrorist organisation” elicits no more laughs – doesn’t have any friends. “I don’t have any friends”, Liadan Dunlea reads from the script before adding the not-too-unusual statement “I’m 20 years old and I still live in this house”. Somewhat contradictory to this characterisation, she proceeds to snog the face of the girl she has just met. The kiss comes from nowhere. It has no purpose or passion. But for the remainder of the play, the girls’ handholding tells us they are in love.
The play is a litany of such contradictions and conversations, with unmotivated actions, unprompted back stories, and unclear arguments. There are declarations of love, threats of violence, religious debates, extremist views and two deaths.
And not a moment of drama.
To The Manor Bored
Even the strength of the set loses its shine. Director Fiona Buffini (yes, the sister) makes no use of the surroundings. She plonks her characters around meaninglessly as though her only objective is to achieve clear sightlines. Much of the action takes place downstage of the actual set, as though they had forgotten to include the most important parts of the Manor in its design. They may as well be performing on another show’s stage.
The writer doesn’t seem to know what this play is. The director doesn’t seem to have looked any further than a manual on blocking. The actors – bless them – rarely give anything but the words on the page. And the words aren’t great.
If they don’t know what the play has to offer, how are we supposed to know? As comedy, it can’t decide whether to be farcical, dark, or satirical. By half-heartedly attempting to be all three, it succeeds in none. As political argument, it offers no more than a tabloid headline. Before moving on to another and another and another.
In trying to be all things, Manor really has nothing to offer at all. See this and you will be going To the Manor Bored.