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Theatre Review Labour of love

MARY CONWAY recommends an affectionate portrayal of Clement Attlee, whose post-war election as prime minister heralded the dawn of the welfare state

A Modest Little Man
Bread and Roses Theatre, London

FRANCIS BECKETT'S A Modest Little Man transports us to an era when the future sizzled with hope and politicians were braced to transform lives forever.

It’s set at the time when the Labour government, headed by possibly the greatest prime minister of the 20th century, calmly and purposefully turned dreams into reality and created a global example.

As if to rub salt into current wounds, the opening night fortuitously coincided with the momentous Brexit vote in Parliament.

The play’s title draws on the infamous words of Churchill, who disparagingly described Attlee as “a modest little man with plenty to be modest about.” It’s precisely that modesty which Beckett cherishes, offering us intimate moments with a man of few words who, in contrast with many politicians now, cares little for charisma or personal impact.

In this incarnation, Attlee retains a simple focus on the lives of ordinary people, remains true to his principles and knows nothing of spin. Sucking on a pipe for comfort, he writes witty little poems for fun, clams up in front of journalists, talks animatedly only of cricket and, when he’s called to the palace, is chauffeured there by his homely and devoted wife.

All of this merely emphasises the nobility of his enterprise and the selflessness with which he pursues it.

Beckett’s supreme achievement is to render all the affectionately drawn key characters of the time accessible, engaging and inspiring. The feel-good factor is enhanced by a pacey production, with Roger Rose excelling as a warm and tender Attlee and Lynne O’Sullivan, as his loyal wife Violet, charms the audience with a beautifully measured performance of the woman behind the great man.
 
A few of the cast play multiple roles and that can be a risky enterprise but not so here. Clive Greenwood (a vicar, George VI, Nye Bevan and Ernest Bevin) and Silas Hawkins (Winston Churchill, Hugh Dalton and EH Carr) are especially effective.

The scenes between Attlee and the King and Attlee and Carr are particularly comic and memorable, while Nye Bevan — Greenwood captures him absolutely — is a reminder of socialism at its most driven.

Despite limited resources, Owain Rose directs with sensitivity and skill and injects energy into a play that serves to educate, entertain and remind us of the possible.

Go before tickets run out.

Runs until January 26, box office: breadandrosestheatre.co.uk.

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