Almost a year after the expenses scandal first broke, public ire still seems fresh – witness the take-off of Nick Clegg’s election aspirations as soon as the subject was raised in Thursday night’s debate.
A subject ripe for satire then, thought political editor of Metro, John Higginson, and Clodagh Hartley, The Sun’s Whitehall editor, whose play on the topic, Stiffed!, has just opened at Turnham Green’s Tabard Theatre. They weren’t necessarily wrong – a good play about the scandal might emerge one day, though it’s difficult to envisage what new takes there can be on the much-documented saga – but sadly, the pair fail to pull it off.
Stiffed!’s plot kicks off with a landslide by-election victory for progressive young Tory, Quentin Dellaware (Brendan Murphy). He arrives, idealistic, in Westminster, only to be shown the ropes by his old school-friend, George Moore-Lys (Matthew Neal), the out-of-touch Shadow Chancellor, who advises him on home-flipping and the like. Appalled at the status quo, Dellaware leaks MPs’ expenses claims to journalist Sally Pauper (Laura Evelyn), giving rise to what MPs see as a media siege on Westminster.
If you followed the saga in the press even slightly, there is nothing new here. One of the main characters is Paula Stiff (Emma Manton), a Labour minister embarrassed by a porn video being claimed among her expenses (the fate of former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith), whilst the claims for duck houses, moats and Kit Kats are, of course, name checked. There are, however, neither the good jokes nor the novel analysis required to raise the play beyond a rushed rehash of recent events. The underlying problem – successive governments’ unwillingness to increase MPs’ basic salaries for fear of the media outcry – is touched on but never examined.
The cast is game enough, however, with Marc Wall putting in an entertaining imitation of former Commons Speaker Michael Martin (depicted in puppet form), as well as an amusing (if at times over-the-top) turn as a deranged newspaper impresario. Murphy is also adept as the awkward Dellaware, unversed in the ways of Westminster. The scene in which the newcomer tries to find his way around the labyrinthine palace only to be met with closing door after closing door is a fine one, testament to Christopher Hone’s inventive, versatile set.
All in all, Dan Herd’s production has plenty of nice touches and is pleasantly jaunty, but is ultimately let down by a very thin script.
- Tom Cameron