Friday, January 31, 2020

Review: 'For The Sake Of Argument' at the Bridewell Theatre, 30th January 2020

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

When my revolution begins I will order that opinion columnists be first up against the wall. Don't get me wrong, there's a couple of good eggs. But the vast majority are preening, thin-skinned poshos who got their jobs through nepotism and can be relied on to be dead wrong about almost everything. I'm thinking your Polly Toynbees, your Suzanne Moores, your Matthew D'Anconas and your John Rentouls.

These are the kinds of people who have no useful function in society: PPE grads deemed too incompetent for actual power and whose role is to condescend to their readers, strictly enforce the status quo and pine for the 'sensible' centrism that will allow them to continue their ridiculous cossetted existences in fancy London mansions

... and... breathe... 

Harry Darell's For The Sake of Argument invites us to spend an evening with these people. His show serves up a ghoulish gallery of privileged tossers and then slowly dismantles the emotional, intellectual and geographic barriers erected that prevent them from being exposed to the consequences of their words.

The play centres on author and columnist Eleanor Hickock (Ashleigh Cole), who I read as essentially a gender-swapped Christopher Hitchens. Like Hitchens, she's extremely erudite, atheistic and began life on the left only to find herself sympathising with US neocons. The play is set in 2009, during Gordon Brown's Prime Ministership, and we find her still vociferously defending Blair and Bush's disastrous invasion of Iraq.

Listening to the arguments about this gave me mild yet distressing flashbacks to 2003, where all manner of armchair generals opined that invading Iraq was the only sensible thing to do. Most of the war's biggest cheerleaders have since quietly plastered over those years, but Hickock (to the vocal annoyance of her friends) is still desperate to prove she was actually right all along about Saddam Hussein, weapons of mass destruction and the need to invade Iraq.

Unfortunately for Eleanor, her smug little shell is about to get cracked wide upon. The mother of a child who was radicalised by Eleanor's writings arrives at her debate circle and invites her to dinner. Having travelled to Chippenham, Eleanor is presented with letters from the man she encouraged to go off to war and the misery of the family he left behind. How long can dispassionate, logical and robotic regurgitation of facts hold up against an infinite pit of sorrow?

For the Sake of Argument succeeds in its goal of showing what it takes to get someone to understand their impact on society. Throughout the play, Eleanor and her friends' debates are exposed as intellectual masturbation: a mutual preening session to boost their grotesquely over-inflated egos. They are sophists and have wallowed in irony so long they're saturated in it. As you watch, it's difficult not to think that nothing of value would be lost if they just quietly and unobtrusively winked out of existence.

Eleanor in particular is one of the vilest characters I've seen in a play in quite some time. Cole does a fantastic job with the part: capturing that way people like Eleanor radiate a false intellectual superiority. As is revealed at some length, she sees herself as above the hoi polloi, looking down on those who form opinions without full command of the facts (that her 'facts' are essentially US government propaganda seems to escape her). I wished the very worst for her - and it's deeply satisfying to eventually watch her squirm and mewl on the hook.

Darell hits the nail on the head when it comes to deconstructing Eleanor. Unfortunately, the play as a whole is kinda flabby. We open with a lengthy examination of an alcoholic bartender that never goes anywhere, there are unnecessary interludes by the dead soldier (and I gotta say they're not particularly well-acted) and the first act goes on way too long. 

If the purpose of the 'debate scenes' is to establish the shallowness of Eleanor and her social circle, then that's done in about 10 minutes. Instead, we have to listen to them witter on about Ken Livingstone and Winston Churchill. There's a fine line between exposing us unpleasant people and annoying the audience with unpleasant characters, and For the Sake of Argument often crosses it. 

Still, the plot sets its sights on some very worthy targets and by the end, you're left in no doubt that these characters and their ilk are completely full of shit. That the real-life counterparts of Eleanor Hickock get to swan off into the horizon on a sea of canapes and complimentary Malbec leaving a pile of corpses in their wake is disgusting.

It almost makes me wish there was an afterlife so these pricks could suffer the punishment they so richly deserve. But, in the absence of hell, I'll just have to continue trolling them through shell accounts on Twitter. 

For the Sake of Argument is at the Bridewell Theatre until 8th February 2020. Tickets here.

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