[Johan Persson Photography]
It’s 1974, and Britain has a hung Parliament.
Infighting, backstabbing, breaking tradition and, strangely, a staggering number of deaths. We follow almost a full Labour term in office pre-Thatcher’s win, and the lengths each party will go to maintain a majority.
Politically, socially, and economically, the 70s in Britain were a mess. Amid the strikes, the headlines, and the worst period of IRA bombings, the government struggled to govern. Historically, Labour is the party of the working class, and friend to the unions. To then enter a period of government where the unions, as well as your own cabinet ministers, undermine policy risks more than losing support; it risks usurpation by the Conservatives.
To capture that alone is a feat. But to capture it by focussing on the sense of mayhem inside Parliament, while also explaining the nightmare that is the majority/minority issue, our archaic political system and all of its traditions, is nothing short of impressive.
Very few characters have a chance to sit down, and when they do it’s usually bad news.
Whether they’re running down the corridors of Parliament and into each others offices, or between audience tiers, there’s rarely a moment of respite. The lighting design in creating the structure of Parliament’s narrow corridors, private offices, and the looming clock-tower of Big Ben, adds to this sense of being unable to ever steal a moment’s peace.
For a running time of over two and a half hours, at no point does it feel it. No scene is too overdrawn, and the speed at which the plot (and cast) moves ensures the utmost attention of the viewer. That being said, with so many characters, this aspect alone becomes a pro and a con.
For all the activity, pacts, and rage, the sheer volume of characters – all introduced nearly every single time they enter the stage – impacts the ability to connect with any of them. The only true moment for compassion comes within the last twenty minutes of the piece, where Doc’s health is in sharp decline and Walter has to make the decision amid all the chaos: does he call him in to keep the Tories out, or does he stick to his morals and let an ailing man be? When Walter visits Doc’s home to break the news of a Tory victory, Doc asks how many votes did they lose by: one.
My criticism isn’t in the craft of having so many characters portrayed; fifteen named actors playing thirty-eight characters, all memorable, is a display of pure skill of all involved. The issue is if their stage-time truly allows the audience a way of hooking into a character and their role in the plot long enough to care about them. Multiplied by thirty-eight, it’s an understatement to consider it a tall ask.
Then there was the use of a live band. As someone who has sung in several otherwise ‘straight plays’, good intentions or no, this is usually an oversight by those who green-light it. Asking a four-piece band to be ready to play a max ten-second number between scenes, at full pelt, maybe eight to ten times across the course of a two and a half hour play is a waste. The odd minute-long number with vocals for larger scene changes isn’t appropriate recompense.
At a sound-desk, you can ease in a soundscape according to the mood that you’re looking to evoke; with a band, it’s hard to ease in a bass drum and snare. Such abrupt bursts didn’t always aid the atmosphere. My hunch is that the band was not an original feature of the script, but was written into it at development stage. Regardless, asking a band to set up camp in a dimly lit corner of the room (and therefore not really in the audience’s sight-line like, say, an orchestra pit), then minimise their play time, is a bit like asking a seasoned actor to play a character that’s only on stage for a scene – the final scene.
For all the questionable etiquette around the band, this journey through such a frantic period of UK politics is, ultimately, a stunning feat of storytelling.