“A rip-roaring ride through 80s local council politics”, is not the sort of strapline a theatre would normally use to promote a play it wanted anyone to attend. Nor would it advertise a district auditor as the hero.
Writer Gregory Evans and director Anthony Biggs have though hit on a subject fit for drama and comedy in Shirleymander with the ‘homes for votes’ scandal that hit Westminster City Council in the late 1980s.
Westminster’s Tory leader the tyrannical Dame Shirley Porter – played by Jessica Martin who is barely off stage for the whole two hours – was badly shaken by nearly losing control to Labour in 1986.
Amid opposition, even from some fellow Tories, she launched a policy called Building Stable Communities, which involved removing social housing tenants from marginal wards.
Public money was used to sell properties cheaply to owner occupiers – who were expected to be more likely to vote Tory.
A subplot involves an earlier scandal in which she sold three out-of-borough cemeteries for 15p, only for them to fall into ruin. This episode should have been a warning to her colleagues but was ignored by most.
The play is staged on different levels between two rows of audience seats, with everyone except Martin playing multiple parts and with a period soundtrack (Duran Duran’s Notorious gets a couple of plays).
While it sticks to the real story, no-one else is named; they are called ‘chief executive’, ‘deputy leader’ and so forth and I was told are based on composite personalities involved, not the actual incumbents.
There are plenty of laughs but underlying it a serious point.
Shirleymander shows Porter as a dictatorial bundle of energy with an opinion of herself greatly above her actual talents. She uses money, patronage and an intimidating personality to bulldoze her way – a character notes at one point that officers once vied to work for Westminster but by Porter’s time avoided it – until she meets her nemesis in James Horne’s soberly formal district auditor.
Porter and her associates ended up being surcharged for misusing public money, and although the play does not go into this the programme reveals that Porter went abroad and for many years successfully avoided her £42m surcharge by concealing her wealth from the auditor.
This was exposed only through an unrelated business dispute between her son John and internet entrepreneur Cliff Stanford. Westminster eventually got £12.3m back.
It’s rare for local government to make it onto the stage, but then fortunately scandals on this scale are rare too.
Shirleymander though ends with a shot of Grenfell Tower, only a 10-minute walk from the Playground Theatre where it runs until 16 June.
Picture by Simon Bohrsmann