Sunday, October 09, 2016


Chichester Festival Theatre at the Minerva

The set starts as we leave the Minerva foyer. Wood panelling, and inside “the chamber” realistic – and surprisingly comfortable green benches, ranged either side of the acting area. Not to mention the Strangers' Bar, to the left of the Speaker's Chair, which is pressed into service in the interval – 70s bar snacks, overflowing ashtrays and a nice half of Sussex Prospect.
But in James Graham's taut, desperately hilarious drama, most of the action takes place in the “engine room”, the smoke-filled offices where the Whips and their deputies keep their members in line through the turbulent, traumatic days of the Labour – and briefly Lib-Lab Pact – government of 1974-79.
The big names are mostly kept off stage - Wilson, Callaghan and Thatcherthough we do see Hezza brandish the Mace, and Norman St John Stevas fobbed off with the Arts.
For the lobby fodder, it's often a life and death struggle - Doc {Christopher Godwin] and Joe [David Hounslow] amongst those who die in office; a sobering sequence has Phil Daniels singing Bowie's Five Years as they drop one by one.
Daniels plays Bob Mellish, “token Cockney geezer”, sparring with his Tory opposite number Humphrey Atkins, played with laid-back disdain by Malcolm Sinclair. Mellish's successor is the subtler, but just as steely, Michael Cocks, played with increasing weariness by Kevin Doyle.
But the key relationship is between their two deputies, Steffan Rhodri as Walter Harrison, Nathaniel Parker as Jack Weatherill, two men who understand the need for compromise and horse-trading.
Ann Taylor, a feisty new girl in the labour office, who eventually rose, many, many years later to the rank of Chief Whip, is played by Lauren O'Neil, while Sarah Woodward plays all the other women, including wives, widows and the formidable Audrey Wise.
There's a live duo, belting out hits of the era, and changing their costume to reflect the passing years.
Huge changes in the British political scene since those politically incorrect days. And indeed since the piece was first seen at the National just four years ago ...

Photograph by Johan Persson

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