London right now’s a pretty good place for political theatre; and over the past few months I got to see three of the plays that fit that bill.
A Walk On Part
Now on at the Arts Theatre from 19 June - 14 July
The tale of Chris Mullin’s, an MP from 1997-2010, experience of the New Labour era, based on his autobiography, is both very much one guy’s perspective on that time, as well as a truly fascinating insight. John Hodgkinson’s portrayal of Mullin acts both as an endearing figure and an effective audience surrogate. The play is fast moving and the dialogue strong; very easy to follow if you have a general awareness of the events that happened during Labour’s time in power, although it would perhaps get a little confusing if someone came to it with next to no knowledge of the events that took place. The portrayals of Blair and Cherie, as well as figures like John Prescott are not exact copies of them, nor are they caricatures, but rather they are effectively invocative of and recognisable as them, and it’s very affective. Howard Ward’s portrayal of Gordon Brown does, perhaps, descend a little into caricature.
It’s a really great watch for anyone wanting to gain an inside view on the New Labour period; one that seems honest and neither dramatically negative or over zealously positive. It’s also a personal story of a man who just really wants to make a difference, and his personal struggle to do this, and to believe he is doing this. The portrayal of his relationship with Blair is interesting, and you get a sense of the charisma and draw of Blair; although this could have perhaps been deeper explored.
The staging was effective and the actors good at juggling multiple characters without letting it get confusing. Probably enjoyable for anyone with a general interest in the politics of the period, but especially for Labourite political geeks (might annoy real Blair-loathers for its balanced view if the man but all those from Blair lovers to “he-wasn’t-great”-ers would probably be able to appreciate the perspective this play provides).
Yes, Prime Minister
Trafalgar Studios, from June 6 2012
I’ve never seen the TV series, so I was going into this with no real expectations. It’s certainly witty; with a lot of humour that felt somewhat specifically aimed at political activist types. Although the humour feels routed in political reality, the play itself does not; it’s very spoof-y in a way that doesn’t, for the most part, feel attached to reality. It’s main “real” political message is its perspective on the civil service; certainly relevant right now with the recent talk of reform. This is well done, and Michael Simkins’ portrayal of Sir Humphrey Appleby, the conniving and all too powerful civil servant is excellent.
Mostly, though, this play is just light entertainment for political geeks; and if that’s what you’re looking for then it’s pretty much the perfect evening.
And Michael Heseltine was in the audience the night I went….although I don’t think he’s a permanent feature!
Old Vic Theatre
20 June 2012 - 26 July 2012
The divided period of Germany’s history that forms the context of this play is one that’s permeated public consciousness; it’s hard to imagine anyone walking in without a generalised understanding of the time when Communist east Germany was cut off from Capitalist west Germany. However, I personally had less of an awareness of the specifics of the historical basis for the play; with the story of West German chancellor Willy Brandy relationship with Communist spy Gunter Guillaume, who worked as his secretary and hears some of the state's most important secrets.
The play does not require any great deal of background knowledge, however; it guides you through the narrative clearly with incredibly good acting and very strong dialogue. It’s a fascinating and gripping insight into the events and the personalities who shaped them.
There’s something incredibly…political about the play; compared to A Walk On Part where one would think it’s immediacy would make it more political than historical, it’s almost the opposite; it acts mostly as a narrative account of the events that took place, whereas Democracy, although clearly historical, has such strong political dialogue it feels routed in ideology and politics; in a way I found incredibly compelling but might block out some who feel less attachment to the political process.
The ending was somewhat abrupt, but the play certainly left me both more knowledgeable about the period and eager to research more; defiantly one to check out.