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Manor at the National Theatre: a ‘breathtakingly inept’ satire

“Some plays are so awful that they almost become enjoyable,” said Clive Davis in The Times. Others, like the National Theatre’s new “state-of-the-nation” drama Manor, merely mystify, bore and slowly enrage.

Moira Buffini is the writer of previous hits including Dinner, and the film The Dig, but her latest play (directed by her sister Fiona) is “breathtakingly inept” – a misfiring satire that “lurches from one improbable scene to another before sinking with all hands”.

Its setting is a decrepit manor house, said Dominic Cavendish in The Daily Telegraph. A storm is raging outside, and as the waters rise, the house’s grand owner gives refuge to a crew of diverse but one-dimensional characters, including a gay vicar, a black nurse from London, and the leader of a far-right group called Albion. The set-up promises a hint of “peculiarity”. Alas, the play quickly descends into a pantomime of “editorialising ding-dong between rival emissaries of traditionalist and multicultural Britain”.

One assumes this “turkey” was intended as satire, said Arifa Akbar in The Guardian, but it wobbles uneasily between drama, farce and murder mystery with “dystopian disaster movie optics thrown in”. It’s clear, for instance, that the racism and misogyny of the far-right leader are being parodied; but this feels crass and gratuitous against the prevailing “saggy sitcom vibe”. There are “limp jabs” against “the wealthy 1%” and “hormonal white men”; there’s a lesbian kiss which seemingly “aspires to be radical”; even climate change is awkwardly wedged in.

Of course, the house beset by a storm is “meant to represent Britain falling apart”, said Patrick Marmion in the Daily Mail. “But really it is just a pretext for the men to spout sub-Nietzschean supremacist twaddle.” There “is wittering about Islamic takeovers. The nurse warns darkly that they are ‘clinging to the laws of the future’. What does that mean? Who knows?”

Manor may be a play only “right-wing nutjobs” will understand; but the real question is, how on earth did the Buffinis persuade the National to stage this “chaos”?

Lyttelton, National Theatre, London SE1 (nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/manor). Until 1 January 

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