Last Updated on September 1, 2021
National Trust is a political drama for our times.
National Trust is a new play by Mial Pagan, debuting at the Camden Fringe. Upstairs at the Gatehouse provides an intimate setting to Pagan’s play, set in the varying personal offices of Peter Fraser (Tim Robinson) as he climbs “the greasy pole” from junior research minister to PM. Ex-lover and journalist Eleanor Perry (Jill Priest) makes a deal with Fraser, promising favourable coverage in the Murdoch press in exchange for access to the inner dealings of government. The play tracks their rocky relationship and the tragic consequences of sleaze.
National Trust is Macbeth crossed with the Thick of It; a drama about the corruption of power with an abundance of comic political observations. Where Pagan succeeds most is in his comic scenes. A conversation between Fraser and political ally James Keiller (Andrew Baird) where Keiller prepares Fraser for an interrogation by the 1922 committee is witty (“I don’t think so”/“The A+ answer is of course not.”/“Will they believe that?”/“Of course not.”) and successfully highlights how, to politicians, power is merely a game. When the ghosts of Macmillan, Thatcher and Blair (“But you’re not even dead!”) appear in front of Fraser, there is a funny and poignant assessment of the state of the Tory party.
Peter Fraser is a humorous character. Clearly modelled on Boris Johnson (“people think he’s funny…the problem is that no foreign leader takes him seriously”), he ascends the political hierarchy due to his media-favourability and talent for failing upwards. It almost seems as if the play is not doing enough to convince the audience that Fraser is worthy of being in the positions he holds, but it is a demonstration of how incompetent and totally unimpressive politicians can get to the top while remaining almost entirely off the public radar until the crucial moment.
It is because of the successes of the play’s comic elements that National Trust struggles when it tries to be earnest. Malevich (Rosemarie Partridge), a character named after the Russian painter and modelled on a Russian advisor to Putin, is projected onto the wall every so often to provide a poetic interlude in the style of the Greek chorus. Perhaps with higher production this would have worked, but on the night I found it to undermine the message that great government failures are caused by incompetent fools in positions beyond their station – Fraser may consider himself to be a Greek tragic hero, but he is far from it in reality. I found the comedy in the play, although amusing, to be capable of making serious points on its own without the need to highlight it so blatantly with a Greek chorus.
In the programme, gratitude is expressed to the cast and crew who persevered via Zoom, through the lockdowns of the past two years, to put on this play. It is a credit to the cast, crew, writer and director (Sinead Dunne) for getting this play over the line. One could not tell that much of the rehearsal process must have been online, and this is a credit to Dunne’s direction and the excellent performances, particularly by Andrew Baird and Jill Priest. Since the start of the process of making the play, British people have learned all too well the tragic consequences that befall a population that puts its national trust in the hands of a performative, narcissistic fool like Peter Fraser. The apocryphal end to National Trust seemed unnecessarily fictitious in a time when we are living in our own sort of apocalypse. However, as a political drama, it successfully shows the dangerous connection between ambition and power. The characters are well-drawn and well-acted. What it lacks in poignant, earnest dialogue, it makes up for with wit and disturbing familiarity.
The Camden Fringe is now finished for 2021. Bookmark their website for next year’s programme
Follow Mial Pagan on Twitter for future shows.