Ambition is a narrow corridor, a passage which can perhaps lead to nowhere at all. Jack Thorne’s play 2nd May 1997 shows us three couples, within which pairing one person has the infection of ruthless ambition more or less virulently. They represent the end, the middle and the beginning of political careers. Two of the ambitious are users; one is used.
In the aftermath of New Labour’s election victory on the eponymous date, we first meet a Conservative MP whose health is crumbling almost as fast as his voters’ support and whose wife looks forward to a leisurely future which he cannot bear to contemplate. Then a Liberal Democrat activist finds himself with a drunken girl who mistook him for someone much more powerful. Two sixth-formers make up the third couple with one setting his sights on Cambridge and a glittering political career and the other with more human longings.
The casting for this collaborative production between Nabokov, the Bush Theatre, Watford’s Palace Theatre and the Mercury Theatre, Colchester is extremely good. Phoebe Waller-Bridge has the most difficult task as Sarah, the young woman intent on finishing the night in her usual fashion. There have obviously been traumatic incidents in her past but – because Thorne doesn’t allow us to hear what she whispers to Ian ¬ – you can’t warm to her. Waller-Bridge manages her drunken lurches (both verbal and physical) with perfect timing.
No-one has ever allowed Marie the luxury of her own time as the wife of a MP. At the end of the first part it does seem that a glimmer of hope will flare into her life once her husband accepts that his political life will end before his physical one, but Linda Broughton’s beautifully detailed portrait of a strong woman who knows when to bend is too subtle to emphasise an unlikely happy ending. Geoffrey Beevers as Robert – grumbling away about everything and everyone from his own medical treatment to the apparatchiks of Central Office, from his daughter’s friends to the Cabinet members whose careers have overtaken his – gives a portrait of an unlikeable, selfish man who yet manages to command our understanding – and so our sympathy.
Will is perhaps the saddest of all the characters; a teenager coming to painful terms with his own sexuality, aware that he’s a follower and not a leader, wanting so much and already accepting that he’s unlikely to receive any of it. Jamie Samuel gives him the right air of physical and emotional vulnerability and there are heart-stopping moments as Will builds towards a declaration so oblique that Jake (James Barrett) has absolutely no difficulty in side-stepping. Barrett epitomises the bright young man on the make – beware the friendliness which makes demands.
If there is one person in the play who seems nebulous, that’s Ian. He’s the housing officer who’s also a grass-roots Lib Dem activist and who really doesn’t deserve to be seized on by Sarah. Hugh Skinner is almost too self-effacing in the part, though Ian has certain strengths which are hinted at rather than fully explored. The action takes place with the audience on either side of Hannah Clark’s carpeted raised oblong platform, with a bed – which propels itself from one end to the other as the only furniture. Props are kept to a minimum. This is a play about exposure and, like a camera’s raw image, minimalist productions do not lie.