Always good to see Harry Lloyd back onstage but Christopher Shinn’s The Narcissist ends up a disappointment at Chichester’s Minerva Theatre
“Optimism in politicians is delusional”
In some ways, you can see the attraction in drawing on contemporary politics to create theatre that resonates with (potentially new) audiences. But there’s also something a little tricky about using such fresh material, particularly where there’s the kind of currency and controversy to inspire a dramatic response, it can just feel too soon. Mike Bartlett’s The 47th hit me that way and I very much feel the same about the upcoming Kenneth Branagh-led Boris Johnson’s-first-term-as-PM TV drama This England. Christopher Shinn’s The Narcissist, part of the endless queue of COVID delayed-plays, comes dangerously close to the same position as it delves into the world of American politics.
It is 2017 and Jim has had enough (little does he know…). An expert in electoral strategy, he’s coming off the bruising defeat of the 2016 US Presidential election that he actually predicted and now’s he left struggling to write a book about it. Oh, and his wife has left him, but in the midst of all this personal and professional strife, the seductive siren call of the world of politics calls again as a senator with presidential ambitions scoops him back up. Jim’s attentions though are being pulled left, right and centre as he’s also got to deal with drug addiction problems in his family and the consequences of his fluid sexual identity, all while his smartphone never stops pinging.
The idea of the rising dominance of our phones in our lives feels like subject matter ripe for the picking but in this format, Shinn’s writing misses the mark. Having set up his wide range of thematic bases, he seems content just to touch on them all lightly and inconsequentially, doomscrolling through life writ large. This may speak to his viewpoints about the role that social media occupies in contemporary society – something emphasised a little too emphatically in Jasmine Swan’s design – but it doesn’t offer up much dramatic satisfaction, particularly in how thinly-drawn most of the supporting characters are. You’d swipe left on the majority of them and cumulatively, that means we care a lot less than we should do, especially where Jim is concerned.
And politically, Shinn doesn’t land his punches as he takes aim at an electorate being whipped up into partisan furore. Whilst so much still hangs in the political balance across the Atlantic, it is hard to know what he feels he is adding to the conversation here (which is perhaps why it is premiering in the South Downs rather than South Dakota), it just didn’t work for me despite Harry Lloyd’s committed work as Jim and Claire Skinner doing her best as the new senator. Josh Seymour’s production is more effective in dissecting the play’s concerns about modern living than its politics but he deserves better writing to work with.