Updated: Feb 21
Review by Harry Bower
The north/south divide in England has forever been a feature of our politics, none more so than the past ten years. Brexit, levelling up and all manner of disputes about transport and funding have dominated newspaper headlines, and the term ‘red wall’ has become mainstream. Not only is this discourse divisive it is used as a political bargaining tool, usually by those in Westminster, to further cement their power and advance their own interests. It is on this theme that Metamorph Theatre’s new comedy play, Right Dishonourable Friend, is pitched.
Performed as a triple-hander, the show follows Perdita, the new MP for Ardenton (a fictional town in Lancashire) as they integrate with the local community, taking over from ‘creepy Clive’, the now disgraced former occupant of the role. A Londoner, Perdita only has the job because of her father’s political clout as the former home secretary, and so is already on the back foot with her constituents. Completing the trio is sarcastic and somewhat cynical Dan, the comms manager, and a gormless assistant named Sharon who embodies the obvious northern stereotypes (loves Coronation Street and swears a lot).
Phoebe Batteson-Brown and Eoin McKenna are the authors of these characters but also embody them, Batteson-Brown as Perdita and McKenna as Dan. The two are bolstered by Rachael Hilton playing various characters including Sharon the assistant, Michelle the exotic dance club owner, and Alex, the distressed teenager. All three perform admirably and with a maturity that comes from understanding their source material incredibly well. Batteson-Brown’s Perdita is infuriatingly thoughtless and self-obsessed, played with enough vulnerability to make the audience sympathetic and enough villainy to make us want to see her fail. That’s a fine balancing act and one that she does admirably.
McKenna’s is a true highlight, bringing a sense of self-assuredness to the role of Dan. Most of the memorable scenes in this play feature Dan and his impassioned (and sometimes naïve) speeches, and the relationships he builds throughout seem to have a real depth and grounding to them. It is testament to both the writing and the performance that I really cared for Dan by the end of the relatively short sixty minute run time. The final scene of the show is confrontational, and this is where McKenna shines brightest of all, able to convey the frustration of the character’s journey through facial expressions and eye contact alone. It is a brilliant performance.
Rachael Hilton has the challenging job of playing three separate northern characters and the responsibility of making them all unique and identifiable. It is a challenge she impressively delivers on. Her corrie-loving assistant provides some much needed light relief between some of the heavier scenes, and her constituent portrayal is hilarious and convincing in equal measure. It is as sixteen year old Alex though, in which we see the most accomplished performance of all. Bashful and unassuming yet somehow endearing and charming, it is a captivating portrayal of a complex character.
The set design is non-existent, with a few boxes doubling as cupboards, some mugs, and a wheely office chair making up the entirety of the props, and honestly that is what seemed appropriate throughout. By making everything non-distinct it subliminally indicates to the audience that this could be any small town in rural north England. These same challenges, issues and stories play out across the country, daily.
Tracking themes of nepotism, north/south rivalry, the Westminster bubble, planning issues – at first glance this show is on-the-nose but fairly skin-deep in its approach. That is, until the LGBTQ+ threads are revealed half way through, at which time the direction is made clear. Metamorph has partnered with the excellent Stonewall Housing charity and this production is used as a vehicle to highlight the very real dangers queer people face when there is risk of homelessness, particularly in the north of England where coverage of services available is lighter than it should be.
I did find myself questioning regularly whether or not this play is a fair reflection of society in general. For example, Dan is on a mission to create a charity that will help young LGBTQ+ people in need, first through counselling and guidance and eventually via a shelter. At one stage though, it takes the posh southerner to rally him and encourage him to do so. Is the message here that northerners need southerners to push them in order for them to aspire to something bigger or more impactful? Obviously not – and to assume so would be reading far too much into the subtext of the plot. But it is subtext nonetheless.
Right Dishonourable Friend is a well-written play which tackles huge overarching societal issues alongside some more straightforward but no less important human-nature ones. Depending on your mindset it is either a pessimistic demonstration of all that’s wrong with our political system, or it’s a realistic holding up of a mirror to its audience. It is certainly not overly optimistic about the future and actually, I’m okay with that. There’s no pretence or magic happy ending here and certainly no quick fix in reality either.
When the story begins this is an accomplished comedy play which has the audience chuckling along at some clever but not ground-breaking jokes, with plays on the class system and a reliance on stereotypes. In its asking of some tough questions and addressing key issues, by the time the play comes to end it may still be considered a comedy but has morphed into something much more. A political and social commentary, perhaps, with deeper observations and critiques of the systems and norm that we as the general public seem to accept.
It is obvious that these playwrights have more to say than can be crammed into a one-hour piece with a very specific and targeted message. Each of the characters has been so well defined that they stand on their own as fascinating individuals and I could happily sit through a back story for each, including Sharon the assistant. There is obviously more potential in this play and in these performers, but also in the overall substance of the story.
I’m delighted that I had the opportunity to watch Right Dishonourable Friend before it closed at VAULT Festival this week. It has provoked me in thought, made me smile a lot, and raised awareness of some key underrepresented issues in our country and its politics. Its writers and performers have bright futures ahead of them, and this southerner can’t wait to see what comes next.
Right Dishonourable Friend played at VAULT Festival 14-18 February 2023. Find out more: https://vaultfestival.com/events/right-dishonourable-friend/. For future information about the show and where it may play next, visit https://metamorphtheatre.wixsite.com/website.
This production is produced in collaboration with Stonewall Housing who help thousands of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer people (LGBTQ+) people in the UK every year. All of their services are free and confidential. If you’re LGBTQ+, facing or experiencing homelessness, living in an unsafe home, or you would like to find out how to support the charity you can visit their website: https://stonewallhousing.org/.