Party Games

Michael McManus
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre
Festival Theatre, Malvern

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Election night: Jason Callender (Luke), Matthew Cottle (John) and Natalie Dunne (Anne) Credit: Craig Fuller
Ryan Early (Seth) delivers his manifesto to the PM Credit: Craig Fuller
Ryan Early (Seth), Matthew Cottle (John) and Natalie Dunne (Anne) Credit: Craig Fuller

It’s election time, and the result is already in. No, not this election, but 2026, and the One Nation party, made up of Conservative and Labour defectors, has swept into power. And guess who is back as PM—a clue, he’s a jocund chat-show Johnny, a buffoon, fond of off-the cuff remarks, as often as not in Latin.

He’s not so much Bojo as a Bonzo, Christian name John (or son of John perhaps), and somewhere between our former PM and his fictional counterpart Jim Hacker. And for good measure, he has a scruffy, rucksack-carrying chief of staff, Seth, who thinks he knows better than anyone else and is prepared to spill the dirt on them if it comes to it.

Writer Michael McManus worked for Ted Heath, Margaret Thatcher and John Major, but the play suggests he does not hold some of their successors in very high regard, and with GDP down 5%, he puts the knife in over Brexit. "What’s it got to do with me?" complains an insouciant, toastie-munching Boris, er, John.

The trouble with the play is that this is just one of too many sub-stories that don’t go anywhere—a possible deal with the SNP, a potential lockdown as toxic dust spreads from an Icelandic eruption, social unrest after the King’s car hits a protestor, abolition of the Lords, AI used for mass surveillance.

The one idea running through the piece is Seth’s bullying dominance as he determines policy for a flip-flopping PM who never reads his briefing papers and has no policies of his own. But that boat sailed a while ago, and as a main theme, it seems like yesterday's news.

The fast-flowing script does include some good new gags, and some good old ones. Given a list (by Seth) of those to appoint to his cabinet, John asks which is the Judas. "All of them," comes the reply. And the PM’s inattention to documents misinterprets nuclear as unclear deterrence, re-sign now as resign now.

As well as some topical one-liners, not all of which hit the mark—Rishi in California, Suella Braverman and Diane Abbott as Tory and Labour leaders, references to Malvern and Worcester—McManus incorporates some in-jokes, such as the party whip (arise Gavin Williamson) who keeps a tarantula.

Matthew Cottle, best known for playing Edward in The Windsors, is a joy to watch as the comeback Johnnie Prime Minister, with reassuring smile and wide innocent eyes as he makes up another tall story (courtesty of Aristotle), and Ryan Early (Darren Vance in Coronation Street) is riveting as Seth, a one-man country take-over via the back door, standing with legs planted firmly apart, in the style of a certain Barnard Castle-loving pontificator.

The supporting cast, Natalie Dunne, Debra Stephenson, Krissi Bohn, Jason Callener and William Oxborrow, are to be commended—giving their professional all to a matinée audience in which I counted fewer than 50 people. They, and despite its shortcomings the play, deserved better. I hope it’s not an indicator of turnout for the other party games next Thursday.

Reviewer: Colin Davison

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