Sharp, well observed and very funny, this insightful political play from 2012, brilliantly directed by Jeremy Herrin, means even more in the light of recent events concerning a certain adviser to the PM. And watching it again makes you realise afresh that those who work within the walls of Westminster, be they politicians or civil servants, never really change.
Set in the 1970s during the times of Heath / Wilson and Jim Callaghan, the play follows the rise of Labour into government and its very tenuous five-year hold on power through the eyes and the offices of the whips, those backroom wheelers and dealers who basically keep the wheels of government turning in spite of the politics and of the shenanigans that go on behind the scenes.
The big cast includes Phil Daniels as Labour whip Bob Mellish, who revels in his new position of power as a vehicle to get one over on the ‘Tory toffs’. Vincent Franklin takes over as Labour Chief Whip Michael Cocks when Bob backs the wrong man in the leadership contest. Reece Dindale is Labour Deputy Chief Whip Walter Harrison—a steady pair of hands—and Lauren O’Neil is newbie Labour Whip Ann Taylor, the token female in the office who has to hold her own in the face of that seventies male dominance.
Conservative whips are Ed Hughes as Fred Silvester and Charles Edwards as Deputy Chief Whip Jack Weatherill—both typical public school high flyers—and Julian Wadham as Chief Whip Humphrey Atkins, a man who believes he was born to the power he has and takes being in opposition as a personal insult.
I think its best described as Yes, Minister on speed. It’s pacy, full-on, and at times scenes are punctuated by a live rock band and choreographed group moves.
The set is clever, basically comprising the two party offices for the whips, but also allowing the some of the audience on seats at the back which become the House of Commons benches. Every so often, the giant face of Big Ben takes up the back screen behind which Labour chief whip Michael Cocks goes to sort out his head and try to contain his frustration when things get tough.
Very few famous names are mentioned; politicians when they appear tend to be referred to by their constituencies. The important people in the play are those running the show in the back rooms and corridors as they attempt to ‘pair’ those too sick or infirm to vote, or make deals with the ‘odds and sods’—the Scots, Welsh and Irish—in order to get a bill through the House or prevent a vote of no confidence.
The plot covers roughly five years following events from the snap resignation of both Wilson and Heath, hung parliaments, tentative majorities, the three-day week and the extraordinary story of MP John Stonehouse faking his death, thereby reducing Labour’s slim majority and leading to their short-lived coalition with the Liberals.
This is a must-see for anyone who thinks our political masters are worse than they ever were (probably not), or who despairs of where the present government thinks it’s going (they probably never have much idea) and imagine they must be making it up as they go along (most of the time!).
A timely revival, brilliantly written and performed, that is still an absolute treat to watch.
Reviewer: Suzanne Hawkes