Park Theatre, London – until 8 June 2019
Jonathan Maitland wrote two stunning political plays for the Park: tightly researched, thoughtful, shimmering with moral understanding. His Dead Sheep, about Geoffrey Howe’s fallout with Margaret Thatcher, starred Steve Nallon as the Lady herself: not as caricature but, so one of her former close colleagues observed, rather fairly. His largely verbatim play about Jimmy Savile – which of course touched on politics in the widest sense, as he deceived an establishment – was equally excellent.
So hopes for this new one couldn’t be higher: it is again built around truth – a 2016 dinner party where Boris and Marina Johnson entertained the Goves and Yevgeny Lebedev, starstruck owner of the London Standard. That event, with Gove a passionate Leaver and Boris tormenting himself about which way to jump – is the first half, and culminates in the Govian treachery. Act 2 takes us to 2029, and a future Boris tempted once more by power in a nation reeling after the “Corbyn-Sinn-Fein Coalition” and a Tory party led by Mr “Two A’s and a B” Raab.
It should be a blast, given that the last two years have made us all tend to perceive our politicians as a bunch of incompetently self-serving sock puppets. Our hero too is eminently performable (Will Barton is a pitch-perfect Boris, from the deliberate hair-mussing for the TV cameras to the oratorical high jinks and the studied helpless harrumphing designed to make us mother him).
Sometimes it works. The dinner party is nicely vicious, with a plummily pompous Gove (Dugald Bruce-Lockhart, who I last admired being David Cameron in Three Lions), a ludicrous namedropping Lebedev and a sharp contrast in wives. The cool clever lawyer Marina Johnson (Davina Moon) flinches a little as Arabella Weir as Sarah Vine delivers shallow, smart-alecky insensitivities and marvels at her own wit.
Boris, meanwhile, is inside his own head, hearing voices: Steve Nallon sails through as Mrs T, Weir less convincingly as a grumpy Churchill, and Tim Wallers (who is also Lebedev and Huw Edwards) as Tony Blair: waving matily at the gallery and urging Boris to Remain. The others can’t see the hallucinations, so there is some crosstalk, Blithe-Spirit style, which sometimes but not always works comically. The best moment is when Boris performs, for his three nagging voices, a version of his Telegraph Leave rant. Infuriatingly, we don’t get the Remain version which he also famously wrote.
The second act, despite one good final coup de theatre (Lotte Wakeham directs, Louie Whitemore designs) is lamer. Ragged and hasty, it tries to become a meditation on the business of wanting power for its own sake and the desirability or otherwise of U-turns. But it feels half-baked, and it is almost unforgivable to trot out that old Soames-related joke about the wardrobe and the key, as if it was new, and even to reiterate it.
The highest spots – as in the first half – are supplied by Mr Nallon’s stumping Thatcher: ‘her’ facial expression when learning of the “Tony Blair Institute for Global Change” is alone worth the ticket price. I don’t think Mr Maitland was intending to make us long to have the Iron Lady back, but… in an age of vain sock puppets…there was something decisive there that…. aaaghhh.
Anyway, everyone proves true to form in the ten-years-on section, and I will not spoil the very fine joke of what becomes of the Govester. Politics moves on, albeit bloody slowly right now, and with a bit of luck the very gifted Mr Maitland will write a better version in the updates…
box office 0207 870 6876 to 8 june