Whipping It Up - Steve Thompson’s new political comedy in which Richard Wilson and Robert Bathurst star as Whips in a new Tory government on the evening of a leadership challenge – received its West End premiere last Thursday (1 March 2007, previews from 22 February) at the New Ambassadors theatre (See WOS TV, 2 Mar 2007)

It's a week before Christmas, and the new Tory government is facing dissent over its latest bill. With a majority of only three, the Whip's office is out in full force, and they'll stop at nothing to keep the strays in line. But they're in for a long night: boy scouts are rioting in Whitehall, the PM's golfing with the President, five Tory rebels are on the loose and the Chief Whip's playing at Santa. Could this be the beginnings of a leadership challenge?

Wilson and Bathurst are joined in the cast by Lee Ross, Nicholas Rowe, Helen Schlesinger (Best Supporting Actress in this year’s Whatsonstage.com Theatregoers’ Choice Awards for The Crucible) and Kellie Bright.

The political satire premiered in November at west London’s 100-seat Bush Theatre (See News, 12 Jul 2006), where it had an extended, sell-out pre-Christmas run and was nominated for Best New Comedy in the Whatsonstage.com Awards. In the West End, it’s directed by Tamara Harvey, after the original production by Terry Johnson, designed by Tim Shortall and presented by ACT Productions, Matthew Byam Shaw, Mark Goucher, Lee Menzies and Wimpole Theatre.

Overnight critics enjoyed the performances and much of the humour in Thompson’s comedy, but said it lacked the punch it could have delivered had the satire been that bit sharper. Some also found several of the plot twists too incredible, but all agreed the play – aided by the assured comic performances of its cast, led from the front by a curmudgeonly Richard Wilson - makes for an amusing and amiable evening’s entertainment.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (2 stars) – “The best part of Thompson’s play is the study of tension and exasperation among the whips themselves. Richard Wilson’s Fulton is doubly grumpy because Christopher Biggins has failed to show as Santa Claus for the Christmas party, and he has had to don the red coat himself. Robert Bathurst’s smooth-as-silk deputy chief is applying the screws on a wavering new backbencher (Nicholas Rowe) while Lee Ross’ junior whip, a street-fighting barrow boy from a new money background, is playing along a mini-skirted blonde journalist who has her own political agenda. In the latter role, Kellie Bright has replaced Fiona Glascott and marks more clearly the sudden transition from bouncing bimbo to jaundiced journo, though her threatened exposition of a drugs ring in the Commons, slightly absurd at the Bush, is now not so much a red herring as a damp squib. What the show lacks is any real sense of urgency or impending disaster…. Still, the sight of Wilson harrumphing away while wielding a cricket stick in Tim Shortall’s pleasingly cluttered and convincingly chauvinist Commons den of an office, or indeed doling out physical torture off stage, is nearly one for sore eyes.”

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (4 stars) – “I mustered little enthusiasm for this farcically nuanced comedy at its Bush premiere last November, but Thompson has substantially rewritten and reshaped. Now, more serious and pointed in Tamara Harvey's well-tuned production, Whipping It Up stings as it pleasures…. Thompson has a fine ear for several varieties of Tory talk and, judging by political memoirs, knowledge of how whips whip. Robert Bathurst's suavely cunning deputy chief whip treats a would-be rebel, Nicholas Rowe's closeted gay MP, Guy, to mild threats. His junior, Lee Ross' Tim, deadringer for a tense, up-market Essex boy, shows how false promises of office turn willing rebel into eager informer and almost sacrificial victim. Richard Wilson's comic bull's-eye of a performance as the chief whip, Fulton, exudes cynicism and dyspepsia of the soul…. Thompson spins a complex plot that also involves an MP's female researcher, who turns out to be a national journalist, determined to blackmail her way into an exclusive by exposing the member in question. Meanwhile, Helen Schlesinger's sexy Labour whip plays dirty tricks too. Whipping It Up does not, though, just score a satirical hit. It also bolsters your distrust and fear of politicians.”

  • Sam Marlowe in the Times (3 stars) – “Whipping It Up doesn’t have the teeth of really sharp satire, and dramatically speaking, it’s unexciting. But it’s packed with coruscating dialogue, and though its serpentine plot perhaps takes a few twists too many, it springs some clever surprises along the way. The production also boasts acidic performances to savour, above all the chief whip himself, Fulton, played by Richard Wilson: irascible, given to startlingly vivid verbal assaults, yet strangely likeable…. Thompson suggests a public-schoolboy environment, where snobbery and sexism are rife: Helen Schlesinger’s sexy, self-assured Delia is dubbed a witch, a female MP a Friesian; and Tim’s barrow-boy savvy and accent make him an incongruity. But Fulton’s dislike of Tim is not purely a matter of class. He and Robert Bathurst’s silky Alastair adhere to a brand of ethics that demands their unswerving support for the government…. The most interesting tension lies in the contrast with Tim’s careerism…. Never prompting the gasps of appalled laughter that The Thick of It manages, it’s more Yes, Minister, with little evidence of the anger that might give the comedy a salutary sour edge. There is, though, enough agile wit here to make this a deft and diverting evening’s entertainment.”

  • Lyn Gardner in the Guardian (3 stars) – “Steve Thompson's amiable political satire has plenty of sharp one-liners and offers an easy, amusing evening. It is enlivened by Robert Bathurst’s slick deputy chief whip, Alistair; Richard Wilson doing his customary turn as a devious but loveable curmudgeon with an honourable heart; and Helen Schlesinger, cool and sharp, as the opposition chief whip who knows that in every male MP, of whatever political persuasion, there is an overgrown schoolboy waiting to be whipped back into shape…. This is a mischievous, good-humoured poke rather than a full assault on the culture of lies and dirty tricks that is accepted as normal in Westminster life. Some of the plot twists strain credibility.”

    - by Caroline Ansdell