A Walk On Part - The Fall of New Labour
From the diaries of Chris Mullin, adapted for the stage by Michael Chaplin
Live Theatre, Newcastle
Chris Mullin was Labour MP for Sunderland South for 23 years, being, at various times, a back bencher, chairman of a Commons select committee and a junior minister in three government departments: Environment, International Development and the Foreign Office. He retired at the last election.He is also the man responsible (as a journalist) for the freeing of the Birmingham Six and the author of the thriller A Very British Coup. The third volume of his dairies is due to be published later this year. A year or so back I read the first volume, A View from the Foothills, which I - surprising myself, not being a political animal - thoroughly enjoyed, so I came to A Walk On Part - The Fall of New Labour with an enthusiasm for Mullin's writing style and a real respect for someone who seems to be a genuinely decent man who simply wanted to make a difference. I live in the adjoining constituency of Sunderland North and know a considerable number of people who have come into contact with him over the years and what they say reinforces the impression I gained from the books and from his appearances (and, at one time, his weekly column) in the local paper, the Sunderland Echo.
So I was predisposed to like A Walk On Part but I also wondered how on earth it would be possible to produce a play which covers the time of New Labour from Tony Blair's victory in the 1997 election to its defeat under Gordon Brown in 2010. One actor, John Hodgkinson, plays Mullin and four others (Tracy Gillman, Jim Kitson, Hywel Morgan and Phillippa Wilson) play the other 96 parts, including people as diverse as (of course!) "The Man", John Prescott, Nicholas Soames, Jack Straw and Roy Hattersley, as well as a Durham taxi driver, a Sunderland primary school headteacher, Mullin's wife and daughters, politicians from Africa, asylum seekers, assorted civil servants and many, many more.
John Hodgkinson looks nothing like Mullin but otherwise captures him perfectly, his mannerisms and his way of speaking. And his performance is also an impressive feat of line-learning as, inevitably, Mullin dominates the piece. The rest of the cast produce impressively differentiated vignettes, some appearing only briefly, others, such as Morgan's Tony Blair, running throughout the piece.
This is verbatim theatre in its purest form, in that it is all the words of one man, even what others say is filtered through (and inevitably edited by) his memory. It is entertaining, informative and enjoyable. What A Walk On Part gives us is a portrait of a man - not exactly warts and all, although some pimples are in evidence.
At the end of the piece we have learned a little more about what goes on behind the scenes in the Westminster village but there are no dramatic revelations, no dramatic tension. In fact, it isn't really drama at all. Writer Michael Chaplin could have created many different plays out of the vast amount of material in the diaries, some much more dramatic, but has chosen to give us the man, so we spend a pleasant evening in the company of an interesting man, are alternately amused and annoyed, learn a little about those in power, and watch an excellent cast bring an enjoyable read to life.
Philip Fisher reviewed this production, slightly extended, at Downstairs at the Soho
Reviewer: Peter Lathan