Michael Healey
Sarah Lawrie for Proud Haddock in association with Neil McPherson
Finborough Theatre

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Ian Porter as Pierre Trudeau Credit: Simon Annand
Samantha Coughlan as Maureen McTeer and Joseph May as Joe Clark Credit: Simon Annand
Joseph May as Joe Clark and Ian Porter as John Crosbie Credit: Simon Annand

Michael Healey’s play 1979 takes us to the closing hours of the short-lived government of Joe Clark, Canada’s Prime Minister, determined to have a vote on his budget, a vote he will lose.

As he waits for the parliamentary bell to summon him to the chamber, he is visited by other political figures, many of whom want him to delay the vote.

The name of the characters and something of the political context is projected onto a back screen to assist in what for many audience members will be unfamiliar.

Joe (Joseph May) is depicted as a man of conviction who stands (so he tells us) for the whole country, not just those who elected him. He sits in his office playing his favourite music, not even turning down the volume when the panicky cabinet member John Crosbie (Ian Porter) rushes into the room.

Calm and folksy, he is unfazed by his visitors. You might imagine him perhaps standing hands resting on his hips, on the porch of his rural home, ready to listen to the stories of his favourite children.

One of his less favourite arrivals should have been the crafty Pierre Trudeau, the former prime minister and current opposition leader, who is happy to get Joe’s secret briefings and then use them to embarrass the government.

Other visitors include his wife, Maureen McTeer (Samantha Coughlan), a staffer who became Joe’s wife without changing her name, something others occasionally mocked her about.

That wasn’t the only irritation she faced. She describes how some of the male politicians would, uninvited, pat her on the bottom. We get an example of this when a politician does precisely that to another woman character in front of Joe. Not that amiable Joe objects, or even blinks at the assault.

The most passionate and intentionally disturbing speech comes from the staffer Stephen Harper in an imagined visit towards the end of the show. Harper didn’t meet Joe in December 1979, though he was later in 2006 to become a more right-wing prime minister.

Encouraged by Joe to speak his mind, he criticises Joe as being too soft and praises the more ruthless approach of Britain’s Margaret Thatcher.

The potential situation comedy is flawed by a lack of both comedy and a definable situation. We never get beyond the slight comic caricature of characters, which undermines the play’s believability. Not that there is much within the play to believe in.

The detail of the projected back-screen narrative is distracting without being particularly helpful. There is never anything we can care about. We didn’t even get to know why the budget was so controversial.

Ironically, this play about a political event that led to the fall of a government is both unpolitical and lacking in any dramatic tension.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna

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