Lyttelton, National Theatre, London – until 25 November 2019
With Parliament in uproar upriver, the NT hit a luckily apt moment to stage Simon Woods’ first play and promote it as a “witty and devastating portrait of the governing class”. Just the night to hurl some fine invective at an audience fancying a torture-a-Tory session. It’s a tight 90-minute two hander about an Etonian Conservative MP in a profoundly unhappy marriage to a wife with passionately sarcastic socialist beliefs, both of them overshadowed by a tragedy they can’t speak – until the cathartic end when we find that the torture is hardly political at all.
It’s set in 1988: a weary decade in to the decaying rule of Margaret Thatcher, when the local government act, pandering to the scared old right, brought in the hated Section 28 rule that a school “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” complete with that insulting phrase about “pretended family relationships”.
For younger readers who may naively imagine a binary political split on the question, it’s worth mentioning that the thaw was coming: only two years later the Conservative John Major invited Ian McKellen to discuss gay rights, and that while the repeal was completed under Blair it was Cameron who brought in equal marriage. Time moved on. Parties (well, not the DUP) move with it.
But it was a hot issue. This section 28 seems at first in the play to be just one of the triggers of the wife Diana’s fury. Lindsay Duncan, frailly elegant, still in her dressing gown at 11am, stalks around her drab-chic lonely Cotswold kitchen conveying from the start a disturbing sense of a sharp intelligence wasted, and wifely irritation at the years of “adoring looks, headscarves, twinsets and casual racism – best supporting wife”.
But subtly, beneath it lies a more personal anger whose cause only gradually emerges. Alex Jennings as MP Robin, a weary political careerist, seems at first just quackingly posh and amiably assured, with the air of a husband well used to mocking bickering – the pair often spark beautifully off one another as they run through all-too-familiar differences about diversity, victimhood, poverty, and his suspicion of novels and ghastly liberal theatregoers (we enjoyed that – “a narrow world of appalling people trying to understand themselves” instead of doing real jobs.
There are many laughs. But Robin is no dumb insensitive lump of right-wingery. The lawn he rolled day after day to flatten out lumps is being demolished by foxes, and his flattened certainties unearthed uncomfortably by human reality. Vulnerabilities widen in both, in the final furious revelation. We are prepared for it, with quite nice control (though the bickering goes on a bit too long) as we work out that the couple had a son at one point, and that when something terrible happened Robin’s mother “a cross between Nancy Mitford and Attilla the Hun” kept her hair appointment the next day. She didn’t believe in all this emotional slop either, or teach her son about it .
Best not to reveal all, but it is so finely acted and tightly directed by Simon Godwin that the perennial liberal -versus-Tory, Toynbee ’n Tebbitt, Punch ’n Judy conflict is not really the point at all. Grief is, and stiff upper lips, and the legacy of British repression. Oh, and the fact that yes, there was a time not so long ago when 75% of the nation polled said homosexuality was wrong , and a lot of otherwise quite decent people dreaded encountering it. Regrettable, wrong, cruel, but true.
BOX OFFICE nationaltheatre.org.uk to 25 nov
In cinemas 7 November www.ntlive.com