Friday, 9 January 2015

PREVIEW - Upper Cut at the Southwark Playhouse

IN 1987 the first four black MPs were elected to the House of Commons. The achievement came at a time when Thatcherism was dominant, the Labour Party was in turmoil and there was political unrest amongst some groups wanting to get their voices heard.
Now, a provocative and exciting new play about the battle for black representation in Parliament is to make its debut at the Southwark Playhouse.
Written by journalist and playwright Juliet Gilkes Romero, and inspired by true political events, Upper Cut explores one woman's fight for diversity and representation in contemporary British politics.
It also dissects one of the most controversial issues concerning our parliamentary process today - that of all-black shortlists.
It focuses on Karen, a promising Labour politician, who risks her career and reputation on the eve of a general election in a contentious fight over whether to allow all-black parliamentary shortlists.
Deselected by her party, and betrayed by two men she loves, she embarks on a road to power and political redemption, taking the audience on a journey through today’s coalition politics, the hope and rebirth of New Labour and the heart of a troubled party under the might of Thatcher’s Tory revolution.
"It was only 28 years ago that the first black MPs were elected to Parliament," Juliet tells me. "It was at a time when things were very fraught in the country - the Labour Party had been consigned to the political wilderness and was battling to be re-elected and we had a movement of activists who wanted a voice for their communities.
"Karen's journey reflects all that."
She describes Karen as a composite character inspired by the political journeys of some of the candidates at that time.
"She's not necessarily based on any one individual," says Juliet. "Rather, she reflects the battle to get the votes heard of the people who are under represented and she does this through a movement called Labour Black Network."
The story is told backwards in time showing how ambition and the nature of politics can change peoples' ideals and dreams.
"It becomes very clear just what a brutal and bitter fight it can be to survive as a politician," says Juliet. "All the characters have crossed the line, are flawed and challenged and do things they never imagined they would have to do to survive.
"To begin with they have hope and ideals but we see them change when they have to face the reality of politics."
It sounds dramatic and serious but Juliet insists there is also plenty of humour within the piece.
"I would say there are elements of satire in it," she says. "It's very important when you are reliving history and dramatising such events to keep a sense of humour and to be able to laugh and cry.
"That said, politics is not for the fainthearted. It's a very bitter and rather tough experience and I don't think people are really aware of how brutal it can be.
"It's important to keep an audience on their toes but keep them smiling as well."
It was partly her experiences as a journalist and seeing at first hand the cut throat world of politics that initially inspired Juliet to put pen to paper.
But it was also she says a product of her growing up in the 1980s which she says was a fascinating time politically.
"I drew on events such as the Brixton riots, the rise of groups like CND, pop music, the 1987 election and other things that were going on at the time when writing the play," she says.
"The Brixton riots brought home the fact black people were here to stay and didn't want to be treated like second class citizens. They wanted to get representation in Parliament.
"I also grew up in the 1980s which was a fascinating and challenging period in all respects. I remember the 1987 election and the arrival of the four black MPs. I am hoping the play unearths how challenging the times were.
"When I started as a journalist I covered local and then national politics including general elections in Northern Ireland so I got to understand what was at stake."
The production is being staged just months after the Labour Black Network relaunched a campaign for all-black shortlists, which made headlines after it was announced at the party’s annual conference in September.
And with this year's general election just around the corner, Juliet is excited to be bringing it to audiences at such an important time.
"I can see Britain going through a profound political revolution and this next election will be interesting with a new generation stepping forward with different questions," she says.
"Political parties will be aware they can't take anyone’s vote for granted with this election," she adds. "They need to think about the people they claim they are representing and make sure they are heard.
"I think it will be an exciting election and I'm thrilled Upper Cut will be staged at the beginning of this election year."
But what of all black shortlists I ask.
"Shortlists are seen by some as social engineering and there is a view that people should become candidates on merit," Juliet says.
"But given the socio politics during the 80s this was desperately needed for people to have these voices. We don't seem to have come far and the fight isn't over.
"Change won't come if you wait," she adds. "That's the message of the play. People wonder if we will see a black Prime Minister. They are questions we still are asking and we are still waiting."
The play is not the first Juliet has written - her World War One drama At the Gates of Gaza won Best Play Award at the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain in 2009 - and she promises it won't be the last.
"I am a journalist and journalism is so immediate but I love theatre and writing," she says. "You get people into a live environment and put them in a world they might never have imagined before.
"I hope they are set alight by this theatre experience."

Upper Cut is on at the Southwark Playhouse, Newington Causeway from Wednesday, January 14 until Saturday, February 7. Tickets cost £18. Visit or call the box office on 020 7407 0234.

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