Review: Michelle & Arlene – two game politicians flip flop after staying in close contact over summer

What would it take for a politician to change their mind?

For Iain Duncan Smith, his so-called ‘Easterhouse Epiphany’ around welfare and social mobility came after visiting Glasgow’s Easterhouse Estate in 2002. Group Think is an issue, never mind party loyalty, inherited beliefs and the reality that changing policy will affect voting patterns.

What would it take for a Northern Ireland politician to change their mind on one of any number of intractable issues?

Rosemary Jenkinson examines the possibility of Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill flip-flopping in her fiercely satirical play Michelle & Arlene. I interviewed her a couple of weeks ago before rehearsals began and she described why she wanted to write a ‘rapid response’ piece to address contemporary politics and explained the premise of the plot:

“The premise is that Michelle and Arlene separately go on holiday to Ibiza but keep bumping into each other. In spite of their initial hostility, it’s almost as if they are fated to be closer than they ever thought possible!”

Thursday’s opening night audience roared with laughter from the start as they looked behind the carefully crafted public images and wondered whether Maria Connolly’s fictional version of a drinking and sometimes swearing, uber-British former First Minister – who looks like she has a mouthful of nuts-and-bolts-flavoured chewing gum – had a grain of truth about it.

“I intend to stay in very close contact with Michelle O’Neill over the summer.”

Wearing a long blonde wig, Mary-Frances Doherty has more than a passing resemblance for Michelle O’Neill. This fast talking, slightly hyper Derry woman is flying out to the wedding of two friends on the Spanish island of Ibiza. She is somewhat disturbed to discover her political opponent Arlene sitting in the Departures lounge at the airport having decided to get “a bit of head space” and find solitude somewhere that she won’t be recognised.

“Of course I believe in democracy, it’s public opinion I don’t believe in.”

Their tetchy exchanges gather chuckles, as do their deceitful conversations with the Irish Taoiseach and British Prime Minister. We watch their barbed frostiness melt a little as they continue to bump into each other on the party island. One evening the beer flows and the fictional Arlene comes cheek to cheek with the woman she described back in May as “very attractive” and the pair relax into each other’s company, not to mention, each other’s arms .

While there’s a heightened sense of the ridiculous, and the plot leads to a very unexpected political union, the play does evoke echoes of a political trip to South Africa twenty years ago in May 1997 when Nelson Mandela “offered peace negotiators in Belfast some respite from the pressures of Castle Buildings”. Do breakthroughs require privacy and time for personal bonding?

The use of karaoke within the performance, in particular The First Cut Is The Deepest, adds to the frisson of naughtiness that envelopes the play. By the end the audience were trying to guess the tunes from the introductions to be able to sing along.

The mood changes as each actor relays unsettling moments from their character’s real-world past, though the question about the hierarchy of victims is not dwelt upon for too long. Director Richard Lavery allows the jokes about boilers and rutting farm animals to subside for a minute, and instead personal history is heard, underscoring the context which helped create this opposing politicians.

Given the quick turnaround from scripting to rehearsing and production, the hour long show is amazingly devoid of major wobbles. Maria Connolly’s eyes are remarkable to watch as they dart around, indicating varying levels of distress being carried by the unionist leader.

An incendiary incident towards the end of the play lacks dramatic action and some flashing lights and swaying around by the cast on the simple set would give the scene a lift. Some of the subsequent speechifying would also benefit from a trim in this deliberately short piece.

Michelle & Arlene goes some way towards exposing the vices that occlude political progress at Stormont. In the week before talks are due not to restart on Monday – surely only in Northern Ireland would that phrase make sense? – it is a reminder that the intransigent mode of negotiation has so far failed to deliver the change that many people quietly seek. The script contains reminders of how Arlene Foster has previously flip-flopped on specific issues and how politicians hide behind rhetoric.

Since it is unlikely that either protagonist will attend a performance, the satire will fail to directly challenge them about their vices. And it could be argued that the typical audience for theatre – even a pop-up venue a hundred yards from Sandy Row – will find their liberal prejudices reinforced rather than being exposed to fresh contentions of cranial corruption amongst the policy making class.

Yet the play does put its finger on the one nub of the problem: it isn’t space apart (like a long empty summer) that creates the catalyst for policy change, it is through experience, rubbing up against alternative views and reflection that change might come. Jenkinson’s characters may ultimately cave in a little too quickly. But at least they do so having had part of their cosy world turned upside down.

Michelle & Arlene runs in the Accidental Theatre space in Shaftesbury Square until Saturday 26 August. Tickets are sold out and there’s a waiting list. Box office success will hopefully inspire other writers to work with Accidental Theatre to write and produce further work for their Rapid Response strand.

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