White Bear Theatre, London – until 15 February 2020
The paradox of staging a play to illuminate the life of Cherie Blair the person, rather than Cherie Blair the wife of Tony Blair, is that the only reason the play is being staged is because she is the wife of Tony Blair. Despite this, Lloyd Evans‘ monologue, Cherie – My Struggle (and if this is a reference to Mein Kampf, it’s lost on me), manages largely to avoid the elephanthony in the room and allow its subject to speak for herself.
While the unfamiliar early years don’t engage as much as the familiar New Labour years, they do, importantly, place her in a context that generates sympathy, and show Cherie the human being rather than Cherie the subject of hostile newspaper headlines. We see a little girl growing up in Merseyside, loved by her self-sacrificing mother and missing her father, the actor Tony Booth, who spends much of her childhood away in London, drinking and sleeping around (or, to use the wonderful expression employed by the play, ‘crumpeteering’). Cherie excels at school, obtains a brilliant degree at the LSE, becomes a barrister, meets Tony Blair, and the rest is history – political history.
In Alan Bennett‘s play The History Boys, the character Irwin observes that recent history is dead ground because we don’t yet have the distance to view it clearly – “there is no period so remote as the recent past”. For many who remember the Labour victory of 1997, “bliss was it in that dawn to be alive but to be young was very Heaven”.
Like all good political plays, this one examines the “what ifs”, in particular, what if Cherie, who stood for Labour at the same time as Tony, had won her seat and he lost? It makes for excellent theatre.
As the twenty-fifth anniversary of that political landslide approaches, New Labour is receding from recent history and into proper history, and herein lies one of the play’s strengths, presenting a view – and a female view at that – bang in the centre of a political period that, perhaps, only now we can start to see clearly. As contemporary politics descends from the toxic to the nightmarish, the politics of the 1990s seems increasingly prelapsarian, and Cherie’s insider observations of those times appear less mere reminiscence than eyewitness to history. Like all good political plays, this one examines the “what ifs”, in particular, what if Cherie, who stood for Labour at the same time as Tony, had won her seat and he lost? It makes for excellent theatre.
Cherie is played very well indeed by Mary Ryder, who looks enough like her subject for one’s brain to soon accept that it’s Cherie herself talking to us, while never letting the performance swing too far towards mere imitation. It’s a super, confident performance, very well-pitched and completely compelling. Director David Verrey keeps the story sweeping along, and the monologue fresh, never letting it descend into static recitation.
If there is a criticism of the play, it is that it travels too swiftly over its material but compressing a life into less than an hour means much detail must perforce be left out.
Cherie – My Struggle is thoroughly enjoyable and one can imagine Cherie Blair seeing it and not feeling at all hard done by. The play is not a hagiography, but you leave the theatre being pro-Cherie – or at least anti-anti-Cherie. Highly recommended!