Who's Got A Plan For Brexit? This Hit Musical Does
After Britain voted to leave the European Union last June, London lawyer Chris Bryant, who specializes in EU trade policy, spent the year counseling anxious clients about Brexit.
"Queries were coming from all directions: left, right and center, every single sector of the economy," says Bryant, 39, wearing a dark blue dad sweater and a boyish grin, over tea at a cafe in Edinburgh, Scotland. "Also, it was complicated by the fact that there were a lot of things that we simply didn't know, and still do not know."
The turmoil took a toll on his nerves. But instead of yoga or meditation, he turned to his lifelong form of therapy: songwriting.
"I like to write songs as a way of relaxing," he says. "I can focus my mind entirely. That's something I've been doing since my teens."
His friends knew about his stress-relieving hobby, though these songs and musicals had never been heard outside Bryant's living room.
"A friend of mine made a joke, saying, 'You write musicals as a hobby. You should write 'Brexit: The Musical'," Bryant says. "She really thought nothing of it, but immediately it put the seed in my mind, and I thought it could be quite a way of helping to make sense of everything that's going on."
He wrote the first song, "Democracy," in just a few hours. Then came the plot, which included clueless politicians, amnesia and a missing secret plan that would get the United Kingdom out of this mess.
His partner, Catriona Stirling, who is also a lawyer, offered him advice on plot twists and songs. Their baby daughter, Elspeth, even helped, too.
"Chris would get up with her in the middle of the night," Stirling says. "And one of the things he was doing to settle her down was singing songs from the musical. He noticed whenever she liked a song."
Bryant had a hunch that this musical would appeal to a wider audience beyond his family and friends. So he showed it to a prominent theater producer.
"She thought, 'Yep, it's got legs, it's got great potential,' " he says. "She brought in the director, the musical director, casting director, choreographer — everybody that we need."
Brexit: The Musical debuted last month at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the largest arts festival in the world.
Bryant isn't the first to turn the national angst over Brexit into art. Britain's National Theatre staged a dramatic play called My Country earlier this year, which laid bare the divisions in the U.K. Playwright David Shirreff offered a musical called Brexodus!, which included a rap battle between Russian President Vladimir Putin and British Foreign Secretary (and pro-Brexit campaigner) Boris Johnson. And Johnson's pro-Remain father, Stanley Johnson, penned Kompromat, a spy novel that envisions Russian meddling in Brexit. There is even talk of a TV series called The Bad Boys of Brexit.
The anti-heroes of Brexit: The Musical are Johnson and Michael Gove, current secretary for environment, food and rural affairs. The two are portrayed as having supported Brexit only for their own, short-sighted political gain.
James Witt plays Johnson as a man-child in Union Jack underwear and a wild platinum wig. In one scene, he sings sadly about how he has gone from hero to national disgrace since the referendum.
But he is not just the class clown — he has a dark side, Witt explains.
"Before this musical, I'd always switch off the TV when Boris came on, a bit like with Donald Trump, since I'm not a fan of either of them or their hair," says Witt, 37. As Johnson, he sounds like an operatic baritone Grover from Sesame Street.
"But in studying videos of Boris, I realized he's got two personas," he says. "He's threatened to break a journalist's legs before. He's got sinister undertones, which we don't see on TV much because the media is so sanitized, and really the stage is the only place where you can tell the truth anymore."
He's got sinister undertones, which we don't see on TV much because the media is so sanitized, and really the stage is the only place where you can tell the truth anymore.
James Dangerfield, 31, plays Gove as a weak outcast bullied by his wife and his peers. "His role in this is the henchman, very much the Igor to Frankenstein," Dangerfield says, "and in that way, you always feel sorry for the stooge in all this."
There's also Virge Gilchrist as Theresa May, the current prime minister, known as a "bloody difficult woman" and surrounded by buffoons like Johnson and Gove and out-of-touch snob David Cameron (Paul Rich). Gilchrist got a cheer from the audience when she sang, "If I'm a difficult woman, it's only because I have to deal with bloody difficult men!"
Her main challenger for the prime minister post is conservative party politician Andrea Leadsom (a tap-dancing Natasha Millar), who wants Britain to leave the EU because an Italian Casanova once broke her heart. And the jam-making Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (Andy Watkins) laments that Brexit means he'll miss the Glastonbury Festival, one of Britain's most popular music festivals.
Les Edwards, a 70-year-old property manager from the London region, says he laughed throughout the musical, even if its message is clearly against leaving the EU.
"I voted to leave the EU, though with some reservations now," he says. "We will manage. We have a great gift for making satire and making fun of ourselves. So [this musical] has been good fun."
Bryant watched in awe as Brexit: The Musical became a sold-out hit in Edinburgh. He is now working to stage it in London.
For now, it's back to reality as a trade lawyer and wondering whether the disorganized British government will ever come up with a clear Brexit plan.
"We do have a plan in the musical, which I won't reveal," Bryant says. "And I think our plan in the musical is a better plan than the government has."
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