As we are told at the opening of False Accounts, the Post Office scandal is one of the greatest miscarriages of justice most of us have lived through. The introduction of a buggy computer system, called Horizon, and the refusal of the Post Office to admit that Horizon could make mistakes led to the false imprisonment of many innocent people, the destruction of reputations, the burden to pay back thousands of pounds that had never been stolen, and to four suicides. The mission of False Accounts is, by telling the stories of only five affected sub-postmasters, to get across the human cost of a bureaucracy that covered for itself no matter the costs, as well as to make clear that although the public perception is that the sub-postmasters have won, the fight is ongoing. Nearly 40 sub-postmasters died without being returned the money they were forced to give the Post Office, and whilst the scandal began in 1999, many sub-postmasters have still not been recompensed.

It is a laudable task for a piece of theatre, and the use of real stories packs an emotional punch. Yet writer Lance Steen Anthony Nielsen and co-director and co-producer Dickon Tolson have put together a piece of theatre that doesn’t seem quite certain of what it is. It is billed as a satire, and indeed we are told at the end of the play not to mistake satire for trivialising the issues at hand, but rather as a way of bringing them to light. This is all very well, but in fact, the play seems to sit between the poles of satire and drama, not fulfilling either. The comedy double act of Alex Heaton and Dave Binder as the villainous auditors are admirable in their attempts to amuse the audience, but the script is simply not funny enough to garner more than a couple of laughs. Gags rely on repeated callbacks or visual references to Star Wars – even if we accept the authors’ insistence that the latter, depicting the Post Office as the Sith and the sub-postmasters as the Jedi, does not trivialise issues, it certainly does not add anything. And I’m not sure I do accept the claim that it does not trivialise; the point of satire should be to illuminate, and without that illumination, it feels in poor taste to make such jokes. Perhaps most baffling is the choice to use a single Avenue Q-style puppet (and two more finger puppets) among human actors – again, without comical dialogue, this is not a joke in itself and left me confused.

As a drama, False Accounts is more effective; the ensemble cast is at their best when they can act the most emotive material, and the choice to switch between multiple perspectives like a sketch show works to keep the audience interested when the technicalities of a computing system are somewhat dour. Perhaps Nielsen and Tolson would do better to focus on the human story, which clearly provoked much feeling among the audience, and was more effective in communicating the travesty of justice committed.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

{🎟 AD – PR invite – Tickets were gifted in exchange for an honest review}

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