Writer: Jonathan Maitland
Director: Lotte Wakeham
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
Popping into a nearby bookmaker’s shop on the way to the opening night of Jonathan Maitland’s new play, a quick check of the odds reveals that Boris Johnson is the current favourite to fill the impending vacancy for the job of the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister. This news adds urgency to the play’s key question: is its central character a political leader who presents himself as a clown or a clown who presents himself as a political leader?
The play is a soft-centred satire that has plentiful humour but little real bite. Maitland’s style is to find a good joke, sometimes a very good one, and then take it too far. In consequence, a repeated pattern emerges of belly laughs followed by yawns. To his credit, the writer neither demeans Johnson nor questions his intelligence and there are even suggestions of affection for him, brought out by Will Barton playing him as a little boy lost who deliberately dishevels his hair before appearing on television.
As an impressionist, Barton does a pretty good job and gets the audience chuckling before words are spoken. The opening scene is set in early 2016 in the Johnson kitchen/diner, Boris and his then wife, human rights lawyer Marina Wheeler (Davina Moon), having set a table for six guests – the unswervingly prevaricating Michael Gove (Dugald Bruce-Lockhart), his wife (Arabella Weir), the unswervingly name dropping owner of the Evening Standard, Evgeny Lebedev (Tim Wallers) and his plus one, Liz Hurley, who sends her apologies.
Johnson, in his final months as Mayor of London, is undecided about which side to back in the upcoming EU Referendum. He looks for inspiration not only from his dinner guests, but from imaginary incarnations of previous Prime Ministers – Winston Churchill (Weir), Margaret Thatcher and, surprisingly, Tony Blair (Wallers). Steve Nallon was the voice of Thatcher’s puppet on Spitting Image and it is a delight to see him reprising the role on stage, resplendent in a bright blue outfit.
The second act jumps forward to 31 March 2029, the tenth anniversary of the United Kingdom not leaving the European Union. Johnson, still an MP, is about to reverse the Trump career trajectory by taking over from Lord Sugar as the boss on The Apprentice, but he is nervous that he will be incapable of firing anyone. Brexit did eventually happen, the country has survived a disastrous Corbyn-Sinn Fein coalition Government, Dominic Raab is installed in Downing Street, Chelsea Clinton occupies the White House, Michael Gove has joined the clergy and, least likely of all, England had won the 2022 World Cup.
Will our hero at last get the call, in Churchillian fashion, to save the nation in its new darkest hour? If so, he will have to contain his “inner Bill Clinton” and champion, you guessed it, the United Kingdom’s re-entry into the European Union.
Director Lotte Wakeham’s production is sharply acted, blending caricature and real-life deftly. The writer’s cynical, but probably correct, assertion is that, driven by lust for power, politics of pragmatism will always defeat politics of conviction. We await the next instalment in the Johnson saga. The play is scheduled to run until 8 June, but a month is a long time in politics and it would come as no surprise if Maitland is called in for re-writes even before that date arrives.
Runs until 8 June 2019 | Image: Pamela Raith