*This Electoral Reform Society sponsored documentary-play about British democracy could have not have been better timed given the recent general and local UK elections on 6 May. Exploring what democracy means to UK citizens, the script is derived from 60 real-life interviews conducted in West Yorkshire (a book of which will be published in 2011) by the production company Look Left Look Right and its collaborators.

The programme, obviously produced prior to the election, states a number of facts which are not attributed to a particular source, such as: ‘voter turn out has been falling steadily since 1945, in 2001 it reached a low not seen since 1918, when millions of men were still at arms in the first world war.’ ‘And as turnout has fallen so have the mandates. The governments we all have to live under are now supported by barely a fifth of the electorate.’

In fact, the turnout at the recent election was 65.1% up 4% from 2005 – the highest for 30 years. With the hung parliament and Gordon Brown’s resignation, the mandate of the new British Prime Minister David Cameron, the youngest for 200 years, and his Liberal Democrat coalition government (the first for 70 years), came from the Monarch.

The appetite to vote which was represented by the queues I witnessed and the outrage of the voters who did not get to vote in East London, Sheffield, Manchester, Hull, Leeds, Birmingham and Newcastle Upon Tyne, demonstrates that people do want to engage with politics but the room was not filled when I saw this play. Indeed, some would ask why would you want to watch a play about politics?

The answer is you may be less inclined unless you are already interested in the subject. The play has the danger of preaching to the converted or teaching granny to suck eggs depending on the make up of its audience. But is verbatim theatre designed to entertain or stimulate debate? This is an educational production that would serve well to tour schools. The idea is floated in the play when a family discusses the ins and outs of personal social health education.

Ensemble in COUNTED? (picture by Barney Steel)

The play, which emanated from the Road to voting project run by University of Leeds with funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, takes the form of several vignettes (some work better than others) with diverse characters that debate feelings of disenfranchisement, duties and rights, the value of the vote, the electoral college and the merits of referendums. Simon Poland, as political communication specialist Professor Stephen Coleman, is most engaging as he narrates and analyses between each scene. The rest of the cast really comes to life when like chameleons they melt into an array of regional dialects.

The multi-media production looks at voting and equality examining gender, age and class related voting and the burning issues of teenage pregnancy, race and immigration. In its verbatim form, the play posed more questions than answers, though it did highlight the popularity of voting for reality shows, the strength of social networking in electioneering, the potential for independent candidacies and the prospect of vote trafficking.

But it’s strength was that its interactivity went beyond the symbolic props of a ballot box and voting booth, and encouraged a real alternative vote at the end of each performance the results of which, are displayed on screen the following night. Staged in the spectacular surroundings of the Debating Chamber at County Hall just across the Thames from the Houses of Parliament, the audience certainly feels empowered to participate and with actors coming from all directions, you feel involved.

In the mouths of the characters, the idea was propagated that the electorate has the power as employers to hire and fire politicians. Who said Nick Clegg was the kingmaker? But with the historic unfolding of 11 May 2010, complete with purple-clad protestors (the traditional colour of campaigns for suffrage) just yards away from 10 Downing Street calling for electoral change and a fair vote, and political correspondents flooding College Green, you can’t get more dramatic than the real thing!

Tickets £22 (previews, concessions & groups of 8+ £18, not available on the door)

The Debating Chamber, County Hall, South Bank, London

Counted? continues to 22 May. For more information visit http://www.roundhouse.org.uk/whats-on/productions/counted-4562


The UK Corner covers urban entertainment from a British perspective and is written by Fiona McKinson. She is a freelance journalist and creative writer based in London. Contact her at [email protected].