The Bunker, London – until 28 April 2018
Guest reviewer: Bhakti Gajjar
All too frequently, political scandals have the ingredients of a telenovela – heroes, villains, power, sex, blackmail and a healthy dose of the incredulous. Even more commonly, they are named for the men at their centre. That is, with the exception of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the namesake of which – in this dramatisation of the affair and its surrounding cause and effects – accuses Hillary Clinton, America’s First Lady and wife of the then US President Bill Clinton, of making sure that everyone knew Lewinsky’s name, in the hope of minimising the political damage to the Clinton moniker and ultimately, her career.
There are two things of particular note. Firstly, in this interpretation, Hillary (Flora Montgomery) is placed firmly at the centre, simultaneously acting as a bystander, a victim and a shrewd political operator and questions the real value of her gamble. Secondly, while this is an all-female play that explores the characters’ complexities through their relationships with the President and with each other, it misses the mark on its examination, arguably providing very few authentic insights into the way women really work. Alongside this, the audience will find it very difficult to dismiss a comparison with the current administration and its extraordinary ability to swerve any blow of this dimension or potentially, even larger.
The setup is, in principle, very clever. Set in Hillary’s memories of that time, we see five characters expose their different relationships with Bill. Four of them know him personally: the wife; daughter; mistress and the long-serving secretary, Betty. The fifth is an observer from a Republican standpoint but is revealed to be more than that as Lewinsky’s friend and confidante Linda Tripp.
Bill makes regular appearances, with the actors playing Chelsea (Kristy Philipps), Betty (Dawn Hope) and Linda (Emma Handy) taking on this role in turn. They make a great cast who execute a fast-paced script very well. Monica (Daniella Isaacs) is magnetic but it is Philipps’ ability to flit between playing Chelsea and Bill with astonishing believability that makes for a standout performance. Special mention too to saxophonist Tashomi Balfour, who succeeds in amplifying the murky, seedy and fiery emotions played out on stage.
Devil With The Blue Dress promises a deconstruction of the societal response to women seeking power and the men that abuse their trust, but instead feels more like a commentary on the fallibility of people as witnesses. Is anyone’s testimony truly evidence? How much more weight is given to the hard evidence, such as titular blue dress?
While the play’s premise may be ambitious, it rarely manages to pack a punch. The source material and melodramatic tendencies are all there – indeed it comes across as a very well-researched piece – but it feels as though emphasis is being erroneously placed on the execution, rather than upon the story itself.
Yet the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal – as this reviewer is now describing it – has a pressing relevance for today’s audience and with its talented cast, Devil With The Blue Dress will no doubt have a good run.