The most intriguing question about this play is how it struck anyone that it could be feasible to create a play around a character as monosyllabic as Clement Atlee. But feasible it was and on the whole a great success. Indeed, perhaps it was inspired by the fact that the same questions were asked of Attlee and his government before they were elected and they are now considered one of the most successful British governments of all time.
As a lefty and political journalist, I knew a bit about Attlee’s government of course. I knew its achievements and impact: The NHS, The Welfare State, Homes for Heroes. But the man himself was an enigma. Unlike Churchill (under whom he served as deputy PM throughout the Wartime Unity government) few Attlee public appearances are lauded and replayed on a tediously regular basis.
Watching this play will make Attlee the man (played here by Roger Rose) no better known to the audience. In fact, it will simply affirm that what there was to know was known if at all probably only to his wife Violet (Lynne O’Sullivan). It was his ability to turn that taciturn nature into a strength that allowed him to power through difficult political times to achieve lasting change that transformed lives and society.
A Modest Little Man is a pacey and engaging one-act play. The characters are – for the most part – well fleshed out and well realised. The play felt a little under-rehearsed though. At times the actors seemed on the verge of losing their lines and Charlotte Campbell – who played both Jennie Lee and the amalgam character of Rose suffered from this in particular. Jennie Lee wasn’t anything like political enough for me either – but that’s an aside!
The play has obvious echoes in contemporary politics, but for the most part, these are done subtly. The character of Herbert Morrison is portrayed – for example – as not only ambitious but also as something of a spin doctor. For those who know who his grandson is, that adds an extra layer of humour. The only time this boiled over into being a little too obvious was a well-aimed (and earned) kick at Tony Blair’s post PM earnings. While I completely agreed with the point, it lacked the subtlety of the rest of the play’s messaging.
This is a fascinating play about a time Britain and the Labour Party, in particular, can look back at with real pride. It’s central character’s lack of – well – a character is more than made up for in the drama that surrounds him. I thoroughly enjoyed it and highly recommend it both to history buffs and those with no idea of the story.
Emma will also be talking about A Modest Little Man on her podcast The Zeitgeist Tapes – episode released 25th January.
The production continues until 26 January https://www.breadandrosestheatre.co.uk/a-modest-little-man.html