The Last Temptation of Boris Johnson

Jonathan Maitland
Glynis Henderson Productions
The Lowry, Salford

The Last Temptation of Boris Johnson Credit: Pamela Raith Photography
The Last Temptation of Boris Johnson Credit: Pamela Raith Photography
The Last Temptation of Boris Johnson Credit: Pamela Raith Photography

Satirists like to see themselves as speaking truth unto those in power. Considering how, nowadays, the powerful elite are immune to shame and able to insulate themselves from criticism, one has to ask if satire still fulfils its intended purpose. In any case, Boris Johnson’s flaws are so well known—duplicity, marital unfaithfulness, political recklessness and downright lazy—as to raise doubts about the satirical value of The Last Temptation of Boris Johnson.

Author Jonathan Maitland shares the perception of politicians that London is the centre of the universe. Regional audiences might not appreciate the ‘Remainder’ viewpoint or, if they are not Private Eye readers, get the jokes about newspaper proprietor Evgeny Lebedev.

The Last Temptation of Boris Johnson takes place in the past and the future—the first act based upon fact and the second upon speculation. In 2016, Boris Johnson (Will Barton) hosts a dinner party to help him decide whether to support the ‘leave’ or ‘remain’ campaigns in the forthcoming referendum. His guests include Michael Gove (Bill Champion who, like other cast members, takes multiple roles) and Evgeny Lebedev (Tim Wallers) but uninvited advisors such as Tony Blair, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher (Emma Davies) also make their opinions known. In 2029, Sir Boris, in disgrace and working as a reality TV star, considers re-entering politics even if it means reversing his position and supporting a campaign to rejoin the EU.

Advance publicity for The Last Temptation of Boris Johnson promises revisions to the script to take account of real-life developments. These tend to be one-liners rather than major shifts in the plot; the absence of references to puppet-master Dominic Cummings is notable. Boris’s political downfall is due to his philandering rather than his willingness to abrogate responsibility to his advisor. The first act is the more structured with the second tending towards a series of gags. These are, however, very funny. Boris’s book deal is worth £9 million—the equivalent of one million euros—and the relocation of Media City from Salford to London is a notable achievement of Boris’s leadership. Even so, the endings to both of the acts, featuring rapid changes between scenes and voice-overs from news reports, are not the showstoppers needed for a satisfying conclusion.

Lotte Wakeham, who directed the original production, takes inspiration from the description of politics as show-business for ugly people. This is a knowingly theatrical show with Shakespearian undertones. The opening of the play features a stagehand setting up equipment and the relationship between Boris and Michael Gove is similar to that between Richard III and Buckingham. Will Barton shows Boris as being very much aware he is playing a role as the bumbling, lovable clown and consciously messes up his hair and clothes whenever he is due to appear on television.

The cast do not limit themselves to simply imitating the various politicians they are playing but exaggerate their characteristics into extreme versions. The best realised is Bill Champion’s prissy and rather sinister Michael Gove, whose transformation in the second act is both hilarious and strangely credible. Will Barton offers a crowd-pleasing turn as Boris Johnson, although the realistic lack of remorse and self-awareness means the character remains comedic rather than developing into tragic.

The Last Temptation of Boris Johnson is a very funny play but the satirical edge is not as sharp as one might have hoped.

Reviewer: David Cunningham

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