Who's Got A Plan For Brexit? This Hit Musical Does

Sep 2, 2017
Originally published on September 5, 2017 9:36 am

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."

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."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Many Britons worry that Britain's exit from the European Union will be bad for business. But Brexit has been great fodder for performing arts - a drama at the National Theatre, a spy novel and two musical comedies. NPR's Joanna Kakissis has our story of "Brexit: The Musical" and its unlikely creator.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: I'm having tea with London lawyer Chris Bryant at a cafe in Edinburgh, Scotland. I'll explain why we're in Edinburgh a bit later. But first, let's go back to last summer, when Bryant, who specializes in EU trade law, was counseling clients nervous about Brexit.

CHRIS BRYANT: Queries were coming in from all directions, left, right and center, every single sector of the economy. And, also, it was complicated by the fact that there were a lot of things that we just simply did not know and still do not know.

KAKISSIS: All this turmoil took a toll on Bryant's nerves. But instead of yoga or meditation, he turned to his trusted form of therapy, songwriting.

BRYANT: I like to write songs as a way of relaxing so I can focus my mind entirely.

KAKISSIS: He'd been doing this since his teens.

BRYANT: A friend of mine made a joke, saying, you write musicals as a hobby. You should write "Brexit: The Musical." And, immediately, it put the seed in my mind that I thought it could be quite a way of helping just to make sense of everything that's going on.

KAKISSIS: He wrote the first song, "Democracy," in just a few hours.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "BREXIT: THE MUSICAL")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (As characters, singing) It's democracy.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character, singing) How we going to keep it where we all get to have our say?

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (As characters, singing) It's democracy.

KAKISSIS: Then came the plot, which included clueless politicians, amnesia and a missing secret plan that would get the U.K. out of this mess. Then more songs, including this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VIRGE GILCHRIST: (As Theresa May, singing) They call me a bloody difficult woman.

KAKISSIS: That would be current Prime Minister Theresa May.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GILCHRIST: (As Theresa May, singing) It's only 'cause I have to deal with bloody difficult men.

KAKISSIS: 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.

BRYANT: And she thought, yeah, it's got legs. It's got a great potential. And her suggestion comes was that we come to Edinburgh to do it. She brought in the director, the musical director, casting director, choreographer, everybody that we need.

KAKISSIS: His musical was staged at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last month.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GILCHRIST: (As Theresa May) When I say Brexit means Brexit...

KAKISSIS: That's actress Virge Gilchrist as Theresa May. She confronts fellow conservative politicians Boris Johnson and Michael Gove because they'd campaigned for Brexit to get ahead politically.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GILCHRIST: (As Theresa May) Well...

(LAUGHTER)

GILCHRIST: (As Theresa May) ...I hope you two are proud of yourselves. You better have a damn good plan to get out of this mess.

JAMES WITT: (As Boris Johnson) Ah, Theresa, about that...

GILCHRIST: (As Theresa May) What?

WITT: (As Boris Johnson) You see, we haven't got a plan either.

KAKISSIS: Actor James Witt plays Boris Johnson as a clown in Union Jack underwear and a platinum blonde wig.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WITT: (As Boris Johnson, singing) Everything has blown up in my face. I go from hero to national disgrace.

KAKISSIS: But Witt also wanted to show a darker side.

WITT: So he's a different persona. He's got two personas, I think, 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, I think.

KAKISSIS: In the audience is Les Edwards, a 70-year-old property manager who voted for Brexit and now has doubts. The musical made him laugh.

LES EDWARDS: We have a great gift for making satire and making fun of ourselves. It's good fun to do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GILCHRIST: (As Theresa May, singing) By George, that's really something. Looks like you've saved the day.

KAKISSIS: Chris Bryant watched in awe as his musical became a sold-out hit in Edinburgh. Now it's back to reality as a trade lawyer, wondering what the U.K.'s Brexit plan will be.

BRYANT: We do have a plan in the musical, which I won't reveal. And I think our plan in the musical is a better plan than the government has.

KAKISSIS: In "Brexit: The Musical," I'll just say that a song saves the day. Chris Bryant can vouch for that. Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Edinburgh.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WITT: (As Boris Johnson, singing) By George, you're making me stressed... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.