Review – The Absence of War, Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, 21st February 2015

Great use of colourFirst produced in 1993, David Hare’s The Absence of War centres on a pleasant but unconvincing leader of the Labour party who fails to win a general election – again. Is this ringing any bells? In the previous year, the pleasant but unconvincing Neil Kinnock snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in the general election – again, having failed to win as Labour leader in 1987 as well. And here we are in 2015, with the Labour party led by the pleasant but unconvincing Ed Miliband, and there’s a general election due on 7th May. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the nine-venue tour that starts this week in Norwich will finish on 2nd May.

Rally speechGeorge Jones, the aforesaid (fictitious) Labour leader has a natural ability to rise to the top through his sheer strength of personality, but he has surrounded himself with a team of advisers who tell him what he can and can’t say (people like the word “fairness” but they’re not so keen on “equality”), what he should and shouldn’t believe, and what he must and mustn’t do. He’s running around on auto-stifle. There’s something of the Shakespearian tragic hero about him; he has vision, sociability, kindliness and bravery; he is decent to the extent that it works against him, maintaining loyalties where he should be suspicious. And despite all his good works and good intentions, you know that, at the end, he will be found wanting. There is no surprise, victorious ending; he is destined to fail. For him, it is a personal tragedy. Jones is a cultured man, a charismatic man, an inspirational man; but in the final analysis he lacks the ruthlessness and sheer hunger for power that a successful party leader requires.

Reece DinsdaleIt’s more than a little appropriate that this co-production between Sheffield Theatres, Headlong and the Rose Theatre Kingston should start its life at the Crucible. For it was in Sheffield that Neil Kinnock held his famous pre-election rally, culminating in his over-animated, over-passionate and over-confident appearance at the podium, where he shouted interminably “We’re Alright!” several times before saying anything of consequence; and it is widely held that that is where he lost the election. But George Jones is no Neil Kinnock. When he is encouraged by the election campaign manager to deliver a powerful, sincere, no-notes, from the heart speech from his podium, he starts off all emotional and idealistic, giving the rally just what they want. Then he just blanks; he can’t think of another fire in the belly thing to say; he scrabbles around for his notes and looks totally incompetent. If this were a job interview, and he was required to do a presentation as part of the selection process, he’d be back on the dole faster than you can say Downing Street. It’s a brilliant piece of theatre, mind you; your toes curl in cringing embarrassment.

Helen RyanDavid Hare’s play is immaculately structured, starting and ending with the traditional Armistice Day ceremony at the Cenotaph; at the beginning with Conservative PM Charles Kendrick leading the floral tributes, followed by George Jones; and at the end, Kendrick is still the PM, but is Jones still the leader of the opposition? We’re then taken to Jones’ private office, where new publicity officer Lindsay Fontaine is bursting at the seams to make him electable, despite the distrust of other members of the team, including his intimidating political adviser Oliver Dix and his personal minder Andrew Buchan. A TV switched permanently to the Ceefax page (what a wonderful trip down memory lane to see one of those again) flashes political news, including the sudden announcement of the General Election, which catches the Labour party unawares; George Jones is rightly furious that it means he will have to miss seeing Hamlet that night. The Ceefax page also occasionally shows the weather, which is a nice touch. TV cameras concentrate on the pompous Prime Minister, always accompanied by his silent wife, at his side like a faithful hound, and we too see the simultaneous TV broadcast of him outside No. 10 (another nice touch). A campaign strategy is rapidly assembled; old hands like Vera Klein (she’d probably be the equivalent of a Barbara Castle figure) turn up to the dismay of the entire team (except of course that George Jones is far too decent and polite to kick her into touch); no one really knows what they’re doing, but somehow things fall into place. We go into the interval with a sense that the campaign has started, and, despite complete disarray backstage, it’s not looking at all bad.

Barry McCarthyAfter the interval Sauvignon Blanc, you quickly realise that all the positives that have been mounting up in Act One are about to get knocked down in Act Two. A thrilling “live” TV debate with Rottweiler broadcaster Linus Frank goes badly wrong as Jones is side-swiped with a question about Mortgage Interest Relief at Source. Remember MIRAS? So many things in this play remind you of the good old days; Gordon Brown abolished it in 2000. There’s a riveting showdown between George and his (allegedly) faithful cabinet colleague Malcolm, where George finally realises that his blue-eyed boy isn’t as faithful as he had thought – the scene got its own round of applause. Then there’s the end-of-campaign rally, where everything falls apart, and the final ghastly defeat, where the Labour leader even has to endure the humiliation of being rounded on by the tea lady.

James HarknessJeremy Herrin’s production is crisp and entertaining, making great use of the apparently “old technology” (like the Ceefax screens) and TV cameras; projecting the live rally action against the Labour banner is visually a very powerful effect. Bold colours on the backdrop fill the stage with a real sense of life and vigour, as well as reminding us of the association of specific colours with specific political parties. The cumulative excitement of the election campaign is well paced and full of dramatic power, even though you know it’s as doomed as Private Fraser in Dad’s Army. Mike Britton’s useful set relies on a few office desks, suggesting functionality rather than lavishness, and uses screens and blinds to suggest further activity at the back of the stage whilst largely leaving the front free as a big acting space. And there’s an excellent cast who all portray their roles very convincingly.

Cyril NriReece Dinsdale plays George Jones with charm, integrity and honesty, and just that touch of being flawed, as every good tragic hero should be. It’s a strong, serious central performance, and he really shines out in those big scenes like the showdown with Malcolm and the disastrous rally speech. But David Hare’s text provides many of the other characters with some of the best quips, as they pass judgment on the action, and their leader, from the side-lines. Cyril Nri plays political adviser Oliver as a hardworking, quick to ire, slightly larger than life character – you’d imagine he’d be a difficult boss, and you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of him. Another solid performance, maybe a little underplayed at times, but very credible as a result. I really enjoyed James Harkness’ good-humoured performance as Andrew, George’s minder, projected into a world of cut-throat high flyers from what you sense is a very ordinary background: “Croissant? I’m from Paisley!” He very nicely gives the impression of someone who enjoys playing with the big boys, occasionally to get brought down a few pegs just to show he’s not as significant as he’d like to imagine.

Charlotte LucasCharlotte Lucas is excellent as publicity adviser Lindsay Fontaine, the new broom attempting to sweep clean in what she sees as a very backward looking office, and of course coming up against a lot of resistance en route. Gyuri Sarossy plays Malcolm as an untrustworthy cold fish – not inappropriately – he and his minder Bruce, played by Theo Cowan, coming across as the new brand of Labour, riddled with posh school mentality. They are the complete opposite of honest working class George, and Bryden, his campaign co-ordinator, played with down to earth gusto by Barry McCarthy. Maggie McCarthy (any relation?) gives great support as the long-suffering diary secretary Gwenda, as does Don Gallagher playing a number of roles including the condescendingly slimy PM, and the irascible argument manipulator Linus Frank. Amiera Darwish is a busy and sincere press secretary Mary, Helen Ryan excellent as the seen-it-all-and-would-rather-see-no-more veteran politician Vera, and Ekow Quartey gets some of the best laughs in the play with his deftly delivered vignette as George’s Special Branch protector.

Maggie McCarthy“Peace is not an absence of war, it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice.” So said the 17th century philosopher Spinoza. If this play is about the Absence of War, then is Hare arguing that it does not represent peace or benevolence, confidence or justice? And about what? The Labour party? Modern Britain? Democracy? Or just the flawed character of Jones? You decide! It’s an excellent, thought-provoking play, produced at a most timely moment, and performed with great conviction. We saw it on its last day in Sheffield, but now it goes on to Norwich, Watford, Bristol, Cheltenham, Liverpool, Glasgow, Oxford, Kingston and Cambridge, before we see whether George’s fate presages that of Ed Miliband in May.

The Absence of WarP.S. Pet hate time. Last day of the show and they had run out of programmes! As Mrs Chrisparkle pointed out, as I let out a disgruntled squawk, the usher who handed me a photocopied cast list beamed his most appeasing of smiles; but, for someone who’s kept all their programmes as far back as 1967, it’s a resource lost. I was tempted to rename the play The Absence of Programme, but that’s probably taking it a bit too far. Just one of my first world problems!

Review – If Only, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 20th July 2013

If OnlyOnce again it’s time for Mrs Chrisparkle and I to go on our annual pilgrimage to Chichester. Time was, when we lived in a little hamlet in north Bucks, that we thought Chichester was the centre of the universe; so much life there, so cosmopolitan. So many shops, restaurants, pubs and, of course, its amazing theatre. Now, we live in the thumping heart of the lively metropolis that is Northampton, we realise that Chichester isn’t all that lively really. It’s a sleepy little place where it’s very hard to get a drink after midnight, and trying to get a meal much past ten at night is a challenge too.

Nevertheless, we still enjoy our visits for the local charm and summer picnics, and the theatre. Because it’s almost a three-hour trip we tend to get tickets to a matinee and an evening show and stay overnight – make a weekend of it. And this year, for our matinee choice, I chose David Edgar’s new political work, If Only. When I was a teenager I was really impressed by his big work for the National Theatre, “Destiny”. It seemed all-encompassing, as it looked back from current day 1976 to partition in India in 1947. Later, of course, he would be responsible for that wonderful two-part adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby, which condensed 900 pages of prose into 8 hours of thrilling stage drama. I’ve not seen anything else by David Edgar, so I was very keen to see how he would tackle a political drama about the coalition.

Eve PonsonbyIt’s an interesting premise. The first act shows our three political animals, one Labour, one Lib Dem and one Tory, stuck at Malaga Airport in 2010 whilst all the flights are cancelled due to the Icelandic Volcano. The general election is in a few weeks and these are important times for campaigners, MPs and wannabe MPs. Basically, the three of them need to get home as soon as possible, but every option seems to turn to dust. Eventually they buy an old banger, which gets them – neither quickly nor easily – back to the UK via Rotterdam; but in the getting there they hold all manner of discussions about the possible outcomes to the election and how they might best be dealt with. Add to this a young student who hitches a lift and throws many a spanner into their communal works, and it’s a real hotch-potch of political ideas, fears and plans.

After the interval we are propelled into a future world – summer 2014. Not long till the general election, UKIP are riding high in the polls, Christine Hamilton is an MP, our Lib Demmer is an MP with more influence than she could have imagined she would have, and our Tory MP is clinging on to the wreckage with concerns for the future. He’s on a mission to change what he fears will be the result of the next election but he needs the help of the others to achieve it; and the success or otherwise of that venture is where the rest of the play suspends.

Jamie GloverThere’s a lot of good in this play. It certainly gets you thinking about political scheming, and warns against extremism in a very clever and entertaining way. The set is really engaging, with an anxiously pixelating video wall that identifies the time and location of each scene, and which at one stage opens up to reveal a garage and real live Peugeot 205. The set changes completely for the second act, when it simply and effectively recreates a French battlefield chapel. There are some excellent witty observations in the text – I loved the reference to think tanks with a one word Latinate name, and also the fact that the Lib Dem has given up vegetarianism in the second act, which leaves an obvious deduction to be made about principles, just hanging in the air. There’s also the very interesting concept of the eighteenth camel, which gets used to great effect – Google it if you don’t know.

Martin HutsonDespite all this though, I don’t really think it’s quite the sum of its parts. Whilst the play is thought provoking it’s also very wordy, and you frequently get the feeling – well I did anyway – that there are aspects of the plot that you haven’t quite understood and regrettably there is no time to catch up. I was also a little disappointed that the three main characters were so stereotypically predictable. The Tory is a toff, the Labour guy is an “angry young man”, and the Lib Dem lady is a well meaning balanced right-on person in the middle of the spectrum. It’s a pity he couldn’t have swapped them around somehow; that could have been very entertaining. The two male characters were a bit shouty – one of Mrs C’s pet hates – and it all seemed to take place at the same pace – which was rather relentless, in fact. This made it feel that it didn’t have a lot of light and shade. There was also a sense of an unbalanced structure; the first act was full of short scenes in different locations, which lent an atmosphere of variety, but the second act was just one scene in one location, which got a bit – dare I say it – boring.

Charlotte LucasThe performances are all very good, although I particularly liked Eve Ponsonby as Hannah, the student, who is awkward and funny in the first act, and returns alarmingly more mature – or at least different – in the second. Whenever she’s on stage, her presence shakes up the other characters and creates more drama and tension. Without her, it’s a little like watching three TV talking heads at times, with a lot of verbiage to take in but not a lot to stimulate the other senses. Jamie Glover plays Peter Greatorex, the Tory, with a nicely played line in automatic arrogance and short temper; and his concern at how he perceives the 2015 election will go is very credible. Martin Hutson makes a good irascible Labour researcher with an indefatigable desire to get the last word in every argument and perpetually prove points. Charlotte Lucas’ Lib Dem Jo Lambert is in many ways the most interesting character as you see the effect that a little sudden power has on her, and she plays it very well. We enjoyed it – to be honest I think Mrs C enjoyed it slightly more than me, as she was more stimulated by the political arguments and concepts. But on balance, I was expecting something slightly more insightful and dramatic.

PS. Sorry to have to say this, but I think the bar at the Minerva is one of the most inept anywhere. When we visited last year, we caused the staff huge inconvenience by requesting a glass of wine. Apparently it was unheard of. This year, they took our interval order, but when we came out at half time they hadn’t prepared them, so we had to chase around from bar to bar trying to find someone to attend to us. Odd, considering that in the Festival theatre they are supremely professional at the beverage catering.

Review – Yes Prime Minister, Derngate, Northampton, 9th June 2011

Yes Prime MinisterI don’t have to tell you how much of a landmark television programme Yes Minister and then Yes Prime Minister were during the 1980s. They attracted massive audiences and gilded the already glowing careers of Paul Eddington and Nigel Hawthorne. If you catch a repeat episode today, it still makes you shake with laughter, revealing hypocrisy, pricking pomposity, rescuing triumph from tragedy.

Thus the Derngate theatre was pretty much packed last night with ladies and gentlemen of a certain age and class who would have been loyal fans of the TV show. Mrs Chrisparkle was a loyal fan of the show in her youth and was probably the youngest member of the audience. No criticism here – it’s great to see a production providing something that people want to see and the concept of bums on seats is good for everyone.

The scene is Chequers – all very convincing wood panelling and bookcases; and its windows and external brickwork definitely reminded us of the walks we used to do years ago that crossed the Chequers estate when we were Bucks based. It’s a timeless location; and serves to reflect the Yes Prime Minister of the 1980s and the updated 21st century version equally well. For indeed Jim Hacker is today Prime Minister of a coalition government, facing modern issues such as the banks, global warming, and public sector cuts. It takes a leap of faith to believe that the same three people (Jim, Humphrey and Bernard) – or at least three people with the same names and jobs – are still in charge of the country thirty years on; but you accept it nonetheless.

However, the script is firmly as PC as it would be in the 1980s, if not 70s. In fact it’s one of the most xenophobic pieces I’ve come across in a long time. From the Prime Minister’s early references to wops, dagoes, micks and polacks (inter alia), through taking the rise out of our European partners, to a plot progression which suggests some perilously dire consequences for some people but it’s ok because they are only foreigners, I personally found a lot of the content a bit distasteful. This is definitely a world that has never come into contact with Ben Elton, and makes Terry Wogan’s “Johnny Foreigner” positively diplomatic.

I wondered how the production would treat the concept of bringing back much loved characters associated with much loved actors and make it work without the original cast. Would they indeed be the same characters? Would they be doing impersonations? Would they be completely different? Well, yes they are more or less the same characters, they certainly aren’t impersonations and they are somewhat different.

Simon WilliamsSimon Williams plays Sir Humphrey and he comes across as a much more benign figure than Nigel Hawthorne. You feel that he isn’t quite so devious as his 1980s counterpart, a little more aloof, a little more enjoying the luxury of power, more laid back, less Machiavellian, almost avuncular. I don’t know if Simon Williams had a cold, but his voice wasn’t very clear or powerful when we saw it and this detracted from the natural authority you associate with the role. However, he admirably coped with Sir Humphrey’s long obfuscating speeches, which twice earned him a round of applause from the appreciative audience. After the first one, I saw Richard McCabe as the PM mouth “Well done” to him.

Richard McCabeRichard McCabe plays Jim Hacker a little more cynically than Paul Eddington – this PM is purely interested in self-preservation. All his plans are devised to secure his own political tenure, Richard McCabe's astonished lookand you sense that if this causes something which is a boost to the country, that’s merely a fortunate bonus. This is perhaps a slightly more realistic updated character; but he is also more of a buffoon too, reverting to childishness when really Up Against It, and adopting a look of astonishment perhaps a little to readily.

Chris LarkinChris Larkin as Bernard Woolley is perhaps the most different from the TV characterisation. His Bernard is rather camp, a terribly public-school prig; and when he does his set-piece speeches which correct grammar or metaphor, he comes across as a bit of an arrogant arse whereas Derek Fowlds’ Bernard was more genuinely earnest. I didn’t get a sense of his real personality.

Charlotte LucasWhereas Simon Williams played the whole thing straight and gave it credibility, both Messrs McCabe and Larkin frequently went into pantomime mode with their facial expressions and general comic business, which felt a bit unbalanced. The two other major characters, Charlotte Lucas as Claire the policy adviser and Kevork Malikyan as the ambassador, were both very straightforward and realistic and were excellent. However, in a cameo role, Michael Fenton Stevens as the political presenter interviewing the PM on TV seemed to me to go way over the top on the stunned facial expressions, paving the way to what I felt was rather a sudden and underwhelming climax to the play.

Kevork MalikyanWithout doubt, there were some extremely funny sequences. I loved the Prime Minister’s prayer scene. It’s exactly how you think a PM would pray. Sir Humphrey’s script is well written and full of entertaining observations. And the biggest belly laugh of the night actually went to a prop – I’ll say no more. But the revelation of the sexual proclivities of the Kumrani Minister, whilst sharply focusing the play in the modern era, actually served to reduce the comic effect somewhat, and I did find the constant xenophobia persistently irritating.

Michael Fenton StevensThat said, the appreciative audience laughed a lot, especially in the second half, and it was warmly received at curtain call. Maybe the overall problem with it is that it takes 2 hours 20 minutes to tell a story that 30 years ago would have been more pithily condensed into a half-hour programme. It was good, there were some laughs, but we expected more.