Review: A Modest Little Man

3 star rating
Though we learn of Clement Attlee's immense achievements, we never get to truly understand a man who led a social, political and economic revolution - but that might just be the point.
A Modest Little Man att The Bread & Roses Theatre

Image: The Bread & Roses Theatre

Closes here: Saturday 26 January 2019

Francis Beckett

Owain Rose


Roger Rose - Clem Attlee

Lynne O'Sullivan - Violet Attlee

Steven Maddocks - Herbert Morrison

Clive Greenwood - the vicar, King George VI, Nye Bevan, Ernest Bevin

Silas Hawkins - Winston Churchill, Hugh Dalton, E.H. Carr

Charlotte Campbell - Rose and Jennie Lee


May 1945.

Britain celebrates victory over Hitler and cheer Winston Churchill.

But things have changed.

The poor don't want to go back to the way things were.

They remember the thirties.

It was a time of poverty, unemployment, starvation, in the midst of ostentatious wealth.

They don't want that again.

The men and women who fought the war want a better world.

They want the rich to pay a bit more, so the poor can suffer a bit less.

They want a national health service.

Pay when they're unemployed, so their families don't starve.

Education for everyone, so that no one grows up unable to read or write.

They want the Labour Party to deliver it.

But Labour is led by a nonentity - "a modest little man with plenty to be modest about."

He says almost nothing.

He sits in his grey suit and puffs his pipe.

One wit remarked: "An empty taxi drew up and Clement Attlee got out."

No charisma, no revolutionary passion.

Even if, by some miracle, he wins an election against the great Winston Churchill, this grey little man can't make a revolution.

There's no hope.

There's nothing in him.

Is there?

ActDrop reviews

Peter Brown

Performance date: Thursday 17 January 2019
Review star rating image

Clement Richard Attlee (1883 to 1967) was Labour Prime Minister of the UK from 1945 to 1951.

His tenure in that position saw massive changes to British society that introduced the welfare state (including the establishment of the National Health Service) and the nationalisation of utilities and industries including coal mining and the railways.

Attlee's government is attributed with building the post-war consensus in British politics, relying on Keynesian economics to maintain full employment and a commitment to a welfare state developed from the ideas encapsulated in the Beveridge report of 1942.

It's almost an understatement to say that Attlee led a revolution in the way the state intervened in the economy and how it provided for the basic needs of the population in terms of health, education and employment in particular.

And his government's achievements are even more astonishing when set against a treasury that had been left bare by the overwhelming demands of the war effort.

In Francis Beckett's play we learn about the labour landslide victory in the general election in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War and much about the successes of the 1945-51 Labour government.

Though there's considerable merit in detailing the staggering achievements of Attlee and his government, a more interesting question from a dramatic point of view is to ask how this quiet, unassuming man could have led such a revolutionary movement and steered it to an outcome of such sweeping impact and magnitude.

From that perspective, we actually don't learn very much about Attlee from this play.

What we do learn is that he was a man of exceptionally few words and who lacked the kind of charisma that we usually expect from politicians, being harshly described by critics as a "nonentity".

So there's an interesting paradox here to explain about the real man.

But this play doesn't take us anywhere near to really getting under Attlee's skin so we can make sense of exactly who he was, and how he managed to achieve so much in his political career, even when faced with infighting in his own party and the strident opposition of Winston Churchill.

In fact, I left the theatre knowing almost the same about the persona of Clement Attlee as I did when I went in.

Perhaps that is the central point of this semi-comedic piece - that Attlee was and still is something of a conundrum who is almost impossible to deconstruct as a personality or even as a political operator.

Lynne O'Sullivan, as wife Violet Attlee, acts almost as narrator here providing some of the background, such as how Attlee acquired his socialist principles.

We hear very little - apart from a few grunts - from Roger Rose as the great man himself.

When questioned by a reporter, he says almost nothing and it's even the same when he meets the King when invited to form a government.

He does become rather more effusive when discussing cricket, but other than a perceptive suggestion about how to win over the doctors to the idea of the NHS, there's little to enable us to understand just how Attlee managed to work political magic given his taciturn nature.

That, though, allows for some mildly humorous moments during the various vignettes we witness and there are some nicely-judged performances, especially from Clive Greenwood who plays numerous roles including Nye Bevan and King George.

I couldn't help leaving the theatre, though, with a significant sense of frustration that the play hadn't been able to elaborate on why Clement Attlee's political style worked so effectively.

Maybe the point is that his uncommunicative manner enabled him to keep people guessing about his real intentions and motives, deflating or deflecting adversaries along the way, and leaving his colleagues to simply get on with their jobs and effect real change rather than indulging in perpetual argument or explanation.

In that sense, the play is a thought-provoking work - with much to inform current political deliberations, perhaps - but it nonethless left me sitting on the fence about its virtues as a satisfying piece of theatre.

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