LET York writer-director Tom Wilson introduce The Local Authority, his new anarchic farce framed around a chaotic, fractious local council emergency budget meeting.
“It’s very much a black comedy about embezzlement, chaotic, dysfunctional individuals and families and a community trying to come to grips with the burgeoning Covid pandemic,” he says. “The play has a lot of adult themes, such as drug taking and alcoholism, zany sex workers, high-level council corruption, irrational budget and public amenity cuts, disintegrating relationships and canines in nappies.”
City Of York Council’s financial conduct may be making the headlines this week, but we’ll leave that for another day, another play.
That said, Salford lad Wilson has his own experience of working for the local authority, as a drug and alcohol education advisor. “I thought I was being paid to take theatre around schools, but I ended up training the staff, the police, local colleges, universities,” he recalls. “It got very complex, and in the end, I did what writers do. I left.”
He also did what writers do: he kept writing, and now comes The Local Authority, his fifth play in 25 years, not a revenge play as such, but one where the inner Joe Orton is at work, sending up the failings of those charged with power.
Wilson has had to spend time in hospital, facing “death or amputation”, with the need to “get this gunge out”, ending up in the Covid ward to boot. He was in and out three times.
Metaphorically, The Local Authority is another way of “getting the gunge out”, Wilson having written “nonsense poetry and prose to get through the day” and make sense of the pandemic pandemonium and his ailing health.
The result is a messy play about messed-up times, fevered and fever-browed, erratic in performance and devil-may-care in spirit, a “pantomime on acid” by the end of its shorter second act.
Catching it on dress-rehearsal night meant there were bumps in the road, but like potholes, they may well still be there tomorrow and the week after, for that matter, if the play were still running.
A devotee of theatre of the absurd, Tom Wilson does not deal in clean-cut, awfully nice, middle-class drama: he prefers the nitty-gritty, the earthy, the punk, the warts, the boils, the gunge and all. It isn’t pretty and it is often foul-mouthed, in the way that Shameless is, but it is also “tongue in cheek, never serious” in a chance to “laugh at our oppressor and reclaim our smiles and freedom”.
What’s the story? Ruder and wilder than the infamous Handforth Parish Council meeting that went viral when we all needed a laugh in Lockdown 1, at its epicentre is Karen Nadin’s Lesley Carrol.
Hosting the aforementioned council emergency budget meeting on Zoom, as the Jackie Weaver of the piece, she is firm at first but gradually worse for wear, as council officers make ever more draconian, yet worryingly feasible, suggestions for £300,000 cuts that would not be out of place in a George Orwell dystopian futurist novel.
What’s novel? For the first act, the cast members are lined up on tables with tablets or laptops but also appear on Zoom, the defining motif of Covid times, on the screen behind them.
The Zoom feed is live and unpredictable, occasionally freezing and not always showing who is speaking but often focused on Rowan Naylor-Mayers’ wannabe soap actor Neil, or Kate Hargrave’s hippy Christine Nunn with her psychedelic Zoom background, or Joel Cambell’s Paul Engers, who has chosen to be pictured in front of a palm-treed paradise.
The first act is too long, not least because the actors are largely static in their seats, except when Wilson has them step out front to deliver their proposed cuts, to add to the sense of absurdity.
He plays his ace in introducing the oil in the ointment, the slick council job executioner Dan Lucas (Stewart Mathers), to deliver his black-cap verdicts on who stays and who goes, as the climax of the first hour.
Post-interval, The Local Authority becomes a more conventional, quicker-moving farce in Orton style in a swish flat. Corruption, cocaine, sex workers (Nadin’s Tinger and Emma Turner’s Tucker, in a deadpan scene-stealing cameo), the council bigwig (David Taylor’s Richard Carrol) and a policeman (Martin Handsley) are thrown into the maelstrom that envelops the potty-mouthed Lucas and his dippy acolyte Neil.
More spit than polish, more whack-a-mole than guacamole, The Local Authority is a tour de farce that goes off the rails, applies a sledgehammer instead of a scalpel, and is often blunt rather than sharp, but as ugly agit-prop theatre for 2021, it hits home hard.
Wilson also coins one of the best phrases for this age of pandemic deaths and ecological recklessness. “Nature has lost its temper,” bemoans the plastered Lesley. How right she is.
Naloxone Theatre Ensemble presents Tom Wilson’s premiere of The Local Authority, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, August 5 to 7, 7.30pm and 2.30pm Saturday matinee. Box office: 01904 501935 or at josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk