Politicians are often accused of being a bad example to children; the brawling at Prime Minister’s Questions has frequently been compared to the spats of the schoolyard. No doubt the same complaints are made about US politicians.
The American Eric Henry Sanders, in writing The Prince Among Men, now at the Union Theatre in London, has turned these observations through 180 degrees and set the American presidential election of 2000 in a posh boys’ boarding school, where the contest is for the position of Head Boy.
This makes for an entertaining ride, as the thuggish, drug-abusing, dim Bozo (played with verve by Jonathan Baker) is groomed for his run at leadership by the would-be power-behind-the-throne, the smart but curiously rat-like Dickie (Warren Rusher). The motivation here is the right to occupy his father’s farmhouse for Half Term – and no doubt to get into all sorts of mischief.
As with the historical parallel, his father is a former Head Boy, and has thrown huge amounts of cash at the school, which ensures the acquiescence to all sorts of skullduggery by the unsubtly named deputy head, Professor Renfield, a DTs-afflicted, obviously inept man past his prime. (Nicely done by Anthony Wise).
Subtlety is not a big feature of the script. Dicky gets his tips from Machiavelli, and proclaims: “People will do anything if you frame it right.” Bozo struggles with the Renaissance courtier’s name, then wonders if it is a form of latte, before concluding that since he’s going to be Head Boy, that proves he’s smarter than his opponent. It is eerily familiar.
His opponent, Woody (played by Giles Faulkner), looks uncannily like Al Gore and in mannerism portrays all of that politician’s worst sides – the weak-sounding demands for fair play, the attempts to suddenly bid for the “common touch” with ill-advised changes in wardrobe. “I’m sure people will see Bozo for who he is,” he says to his chief adviser – who’s already admitted to having been blackmailed by the opposition.
The director, the Union Theatre’s Sasha Regan, keeps the action humming along – the scene changes accomplished to jazzy pop music of a distinctly Sixth Form style and the audience is co-opted into the key set-piece debate between the candidates.
The pace of the script is, however, uneven, some of the slavish following of the historic tale (with which all in the audience are surely familiar) is laboured, and what the accents were supposed to be – British or American – I was unable to decipher.
Nonetheless, The Prince Among Men entertains, amuses, and reminds the audience of some recent history that you might have wanted to forget, but definitely should remember. Never again! should be the parting cry.