dennis and maggie

Best of enemies: Gareth Williams as Dennis Skinner and Lisa Allen as Margaret Thatcher. Picture: Robert Day

The Palace of Varieties

Derby Theatre


It’s difficult to imagine Parliament without Dennis Skinner. For 39 years, from 1970 to 2019, he was the voice of the left, championing in his famous acid, colourful, finger-jabbing way the cause of the left – of the deprived, of the dispossessed; of the underdog and have-nots, and those in financial straits; of those parts of England where vast clusters of poverty surfaced among people in the north and his own native Midlands, offering well-meaning and utterly deserving people little hope of climbing out of the dregs of bottom ranks into even the humblest layers of the middle classes.

A stage play – a tribute in effect – to this celebrated, controversial figure: and why not? Whatever one made of his famously combative, even virulent methods, he genuine believed in the social causes he championed, and from his days after Grammar School (Tupton Hall Grammar) as a working miner by the age of 19 (Parkhouse, later Glapwell Collieries), he saw the rough, hardened side of life at first hand. The deprivation, the long-suffering, low waged; the underprivileged; the aspirations impossible to achieve; the deserving masses stuck on the shelf; the hard labour slimly rewarded; the hopes tragically and bitterly unfulfilled.

Skinner the miner

Skinner's early days were down the pit

Bob Monkhouse, Frankie Howerd, Brian Clough, Morecambe and Wise: so why not a tribute to Dennis Skinner? Ah, you may say, he was a politician, not a stand-up comic. But wasn’t he both? Weren’t his virulent attacks on the haves, what he saw as the smug elite, those who wielded the power and tucked away riches while the working man was left with little, laced by the wit of his attacks, the cleverness of his assaults. Was he not the beast but the best?

And if life had not led him into Grammar School – surely sharp-witted already, and then, via various stages of local leadership – mine workers’ President, County Councillor, and finally the heights (he certainly wouldn’t use that word) of the political arena, couldn’t he have been just that? A one-man stage performer of genius, a master of the pithy, pertinent quip? And yes, thanks to his mother’s wonderful influence, a singer of style and even genius?

Skinner, now an amazing 90, is Derbyshire through and through, from his birth in the mining haven of Clay Cross to his 39 years constantly re-elected to represent hillside Bolsover. All, or a lot of, this was captured in a new play – staged where better than Derby’s constantly imaginative, bold and inventive Theatre? And in its intimate studio theatre, Derby has done him proud.

By bringing together the shrewd, seasoned team of Kevin Fegan (the writer) and Jimmy Fairhurst (Director, with Omar Khan as his scrupulous assistant), the theatre has served up a palpable goodie.

portrait of Dennis

The Rt Hon Dennis Skinner, Member of Parliament for the disadvantaged

The fun is there; the narrowly avoided risqué; the wicked punchlines; the underlying seriousness and even urgency is striving – against all the parliamentary odds – to drive home Skinner’s undying passion for the disadvantaged, his determination not to be put off, or put down – his consistent courage in fact – which are all here.

Perhaps one might argue that not enough space is given to the more vicious outbursts – most understandably in the Thatcher years and the battle lines and savage bitterness of the Orgreave Colliery conflict – so that we get a more level if bitchy picture of the man’s more venomous, rancorous, savage outbursts. But why? This is theatre, not strict biography, and the creativeness and enjoyment of the text surely comes first. The script is a kind of parody in itself, and its scattered – indeed substantial - wit and naughtiness make for a joyous piece of theatre.

Its success, of course, defends crucially on the talent of the cast. Gareth Williams’ portrayal of a tetchy Skinner catches so much of the man. Five years ago a documentary about Skinner was made (“Dennis Skinner: Nature of the Beast”) in which four of his younger brothers – it was a large and closely knit family - take part and share much of the early history of their joint family life. And we learn of the protectiveness, the care, and the – yes, love – that he as the eldest showed to them. The generosity, the sensitivity, even the wisdom the showed in bringing them up shone through. That there was another side to the man, and boy, by no means snappiness or impatience intolerance, came across vividly. This was not the beast, but the guide and role model, the paradigm of what a brother could, and should, be.

And it’s this genuine warmth, affection and compassion which underly the character Gareth Williams so skilfully give us. That childhood compassion is extended to the society Skinner represents, or aspires to champion. Here is an actor of rich talent, able to marry the sharp barbs – but without undue venom. Some are delightfully self-directed: ‘I’m happy being a dinosaur’; ‘We miners have always been green’ – embracing the slim gardens they cherished, the allotments that gave the weary such marvellous relief from the ardour of their labours; his own love of Derby’s countryside (even London’s green areas) and signal, touching fondness for the magnolia tree. Williams’s Skinner unveils to us a phenomenal memory for all different things; and we the audience are constantly enriched by them.

‘Me and me mates used to play soldiers on the pit top’. ‘One mile underground: that’s a lot of roof above you’. The seriousness and the merry and cheerful seem constantly to merge and fuse in this nifty script. Williams’ is a delight of a performance, and the range of moods – including when he bursts (with a beautiful voice) into music hall songs, utterly perfect in their delivery (‘What a wonderful world’ – ‘Let’s face the music and dance’); that love of song induced by his mother, and skilfully a delightful way of showing that other Skinner: not just the cheerful and strikingly elegant, but the intellectually potent too. We feel that power throughout Gareth Williams’ reading of the role. He really does give us a human being, not a mere parody or lacklustre pastiche.

What lifts this show up, together with Williams’ utterly engaging performance, is the two other actors who serve up a range of parts. It would be easy to pick out Lisa Allen’s delicious spoof as Margaret Thatcher (wonderfully accurate, perhaps abetted by Patricia Logue’s meticulous voice coaching); but Allen comes up with a host of other vignettes – mums and relations, pompous or dignified Commons Speakers, dottily dedicated cleaners – she deserved a high accolade of her own. And Jack Brown’s never ending changes of character – the know-it-all, the aggressive, the submissive and put-upon, the intrusive, the cheeky, the presumptuous, the arrogant – provides such a wealth of humour in its own right, he sometimes almost steals the show. Momentarily at least, for Williams’s is such a perfectly crafted, magnificently designed performance, who could possibly match him? To 05-02-22

Roderic Dunnett


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