Political satirists face rich pickings and treacherous rapids at the moment. With the government at sea and the world going to hell in a handcart, the state we’re in warrants sharp-tongued commentary. Yet things are moving madly fast. Topical comedians can rejig on the hoof, but playwrights are of course much more restricted.
Given the flux in Westminster, Uma Nada-Rajah – an NHS Scotland staff nurse of Sri Lankan Tamil heritage – must be relieved that the specific target of her Traverse main-stage debut is still around to be attacked. While her overarching subject-matter is immigration and contentious Government policy on refugees – guaranteed to be ongoingly newsworthy – the central character of Exodus is a grasping, seemingly heartless Home Secretary of Ugandan Asian heritage called Asiya Rao. She’s plainly modelled on Priti Patel.
The current Tory leadership race undercuts the starting-point premise: that Rao has positioned herself on the shoreline at Dover for a photo-shoot designed to bolster her chances of succeeding the fast-sinking PM. That doesn’t especially hobble proceedings, though. What does so is a concatenation of contrivances, some putatively shocking, most dismally slapdash, which drain the affair of plausibility and dramatic vitality.
Barely has the unseen snapper finished before a little bundle comes bobbing at Rao’s feet – apparently a washed-up refugee baby (given no verisimilitude by director Debbie Hannan). In a moment of convenient folly, Aryana Ramkhalawon’s preening politico scoops the infant into her expensive hand-bag, where it implausibly lurks during a no less implausibly long interview with an inexperienced female hack on the train back to London ahead of a dastardly border policy announcement. Cue much mayhem-compounding carry-on when the baby awakes.
The cast are valiant, and elicit laughs, but with the play running at 90 minutes, you’re almost crying louder than the infant finally does to be released. The stand-out character proves to be Rao’s vile aide, played with winning froideur by Sophie Steer, who rashly recruits her immigrant actress lover to play Rao’s stereotypically proud mum.
Cartoonish exaggeration has its pleasures and place, but the piece runs perilously close to capitalising on a deadly-serious subject for disposable, nay negligible, comic gains. Rao remains simplistically vapid, and the playwright barely scrapes the surface of the key question as to how a second-generation immigrant might adopt a challengingly hard-line stance on asylum. The Traverse festival programme contains better work, but given that this is presented by the National Theatre of Scotland, it’s a notable early let-down.
Until Aug 28. Tickets: traverse.co.uk