Mike Bartlett’s Scandaltown is contemporary London writ very large – big, crass, rollicking London as Restoration comedy. As Cromwell banned theatre in the 17th Century, and Covid managed to do the same in the 21st, both led to a restoration of theatre to (hopefully) their former glory. In Scandaltown there are debauched parties, lies, social media manipulation and cancel culture putting the reputation and power of London’s political and social elite at stake. So, it’s just about as topical as it gets. The story centres on the thoroughly woke Phoebe Virtue who, when she hears news (on Instagram of course) that her twin brother Jack is up to no good in London, she heads to town to find and save him. In true comedy fashion, she disguises herself as a man and persuades Jenny, Freddie and Jack to let her move into their shabby flat. In a parallel plot, Lady Susan Climber, concerned about her faltering fortunes, engages savvy social media consultant Hannah Tweetwell to raise her profile. It doesn’t matter whether Lady Susan espouses the far left or far right, says Hannah, she just needs to be outrageous and offensive to gain followers, likes and attention. And it works. There’s a high-end masked ball, a confusion of Harlequins, romantic entanglements and many family secrets revealed. While the rich, famous and power-hungry are thoroughly satirised and mocked, Bartlett also emphasises that everyone is human and all stupidly liable to fail but underneath there’s an ability to be good people, if only they want to change.
The twelve-strong ensemble is exceptional, with several doing double-duty. Rachael Stirling is clearly having an absolute ball as Lady Susan Climber, a narcissist desperate for fame and power. Stirling makes Climber relatable despite some of the character’s more heinous traits as she swishes around the stage in gorgeous costumes. Kinnetia Isidore, take a bow for the costume design. Cecilia Appiah is a fresh, bouncy Phoebe, full of well-meaning attitude and wide-eyed innocence. Matthew Broome’s Jack is a brazenly louche n’er-do-well. Richard Goulding is thoroughly convincing as government minister, Matt Eton, full of starched platitudes and with a moral compass that swings in the wind.
The set design by Good Teeth is minimalist perfection, sufficient to identify place without getting in the way of the action. The lighting, by Paul Keogan, particularly in the ballroom scene, is beautiful and elegant.
Bartlett, always a wonderful wordsmith, cleverly uses the language of the Restoration, with mannered rhyming couplets alongside modern speech patterns to differentiate the characters, who bear names like Tweetwell and Double-Budget.
With so many strands to pull together across a vast array of topical issues, Scandaltown could have been an utter mess. Somehow, Bartlett and director Rachel O’Riordan pull everything together into a laugh-out-loud romp through sex, scandal and social media. Bartlett holds up a mirror to contemporary post-pandemic city life in a play jam-packed full of references to current affairs and popular culture. His hearty swipes at high-profile political and media figures give the audience the added bonus of guessing who he’s based his characters on. Scandaltown is a play for our time. Not to be missed!
Scandaltown is at the Lyric Hammersmith until 14th May. Tickets are on sale from: https://lyric.co.uk/shows/scandaltown/
Reviewer: Carole Gordon
Reviewed: 14th April 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★★