It's long been accepted that something odd can happen to people when they're elected as MPs. It's as though they acquire split personalities. Steve Thompson's play Whipping It Up takes a wry look at this phenomenon. It has had a successful ten months in London and is now on a major national tour. The action takes place in the Government Whips' office over a distinctly un-festive run-up to the Christmas break.
There's a crucial debate looming with a vote of confidence at its end. The Prime Minister is abroad, various Party loyalists are on their deathbeds (or just malingering) and a leadership revolt is in the air. Oh yes, and the Press have got a whiff of a possible scandal or two. You get the general idea.
The audience has probably come to see Richard Wilson as Fulton, the Chief Whip. Unfortunately we don’t hear much of him - far too many lines were inaudible at the performance I attended. The same criticism can be made of Will Beer as the brash young newcomer to the Whips' office. Techniques which work in the Bush theatre's space don't necessarily translate to a late 19th century building. Also consistently difficult to hear is Natalie Walter as Maggie, the young journalist posing as a concerned researcher whose quest for a story with a big byline and even bigger headline both provides ammunition to the Whips and poses a threat.
That leaves the weight of the satire on the capable shoulders of Owen Brenman as Alastair, the Deputy Chief Whip. He gives a rounded portrait of a man who has learned how to cope and who can accept and understand the demands of his office. Abigail Thaw is his feminist opposite number with a nice line in winding-up and an even neater one in general dirty tricks campaigning. Stirring the lethal brew is Timothy Watson as Guy, the young backbench MP not quite prepared yet to 'come out' as gay but otherwise wrestling with a conscience twisted between personal ambition and responsibility to his constituents.
There's a realistic set by Tim Shortall, which presents us with a specific time and place. It's just a pity that Terry Johnson's direction hasn't permitted the actors to inhabit it as fully as they should.
- Anne Morley-Priestman
NOTE: The following TWO-STAR review dates from March 2007 and this production’s earlier London season at Ambassador's.
Steve Thompson’s comic take on backstairs political shenanigans in the Whips’ office of the House of Commons seemed a little overburdened with plot at the Bush Theatre last November. Stripped down and slightly re-written in Tamara Harvey’s new staging of Terry Johnson’s original production it now seems too skinny with it.
Slumped in his clubman’s armchair, disconsolately surveying the drawn out debate on television, Richard Wilson’s foul-mouthed Fulton, the chief whip, was the very picture of battered bravado at the Bush. The impact is not so powerful, or funny, in the proscenium of the New Ambassadors, though you would have thought this theatre was intimate enough to have translated the up-close and personal qualities of the piece.
Apparently not. A sort of dogged glumness settles over the evening as the whips desperately try and defend a tiny majority threatened firstly by an unpopular bill – designed to tax gypsies and travellers on their tentpoles and awnings – and secondly, a rumbling leadership contest only a few months into a new government.
The Tories are back in power – that in itself is the only outlandish or unlikely element in the scenario – and David Cameron has been delayed in Florida after sustaining a foot injury from the US President’s golf buggy (one is assuming that his opposite number is not Hillary Clinton).
The Labour whip (a frighteningly hard-edged Helen Schlesinger, Whatsonstage.com’s 2007 supporting actress award winner for The Crucible) also wants a delay on the vote because seventy Labour MPs are drinking the night away at a Trades Union bash in Paddington. It transpires that she has, in fact, smuggled them all back into the House, where they are playing Scrabble in the toilets.
The best part of Thompson’s play is the study of tension and exasperation among the whips themselves. 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’s 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 (compare and contrast with Boeing-Boeing at the Comedy).
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 offstage, is nearly one for sore eyes. And Bathurst dispenses the sort of public school viciousness that once made this country great but is now confined to playgrounds, newspaper offices – and the House of Commons.
- Michael Coveney
Note: The following THREE-STAR review dates from November 2006 and this production's original run at the Bush.
Steve Thompson’s new play at the Bush, smartly directed by Terry Johnson, is an insider job on the Whips Office in the Houses of Parliament and, as such, a decent work play, and a fairly funny sitcom, that finally expires in a plethora of plotting and a loss of narrative drive.
Led by Richard Wilson as a foul-mouthed, dyed-in-the-wool Tory Chief Whip, it's an enjoyable, slight piece that may be good enough for the cosy Bush but not quite good enough for the West End jungle.
It's some time early in the life of the next Government – the assumption is that David Cameron is the new Prime Minister; his portrait grins at us from the wall – and a slim majority of just three must be defended in a tight debate about taxing travellers’ mobile homes.
The “tents and awnings” bill has upset a few Tory rebels, who threaten to vote with the Labour opposition. But there's an even larger scale “leadership issue” rebellion under way – just six months into Dave’s reign – and things are turning nasty on the night of the debate. The PM himself is delayed in America at a pow-wow with George Bush.
The setting, designed with convincing accuracy and detail by Tim Shortall, is the Upper Whips’ Office in the House of Commons, where Robert Bathurst’s Alastair, the deputy chief whip, is putting a callow new backbencher, Guy (Nicholas Rowe), through the wringer on the loyalty issue. He threatens to “out” the gay Guy who, not unreasonably, responds that his sexuality doesn’t affect his ability to open garden fetes.
Alastair is joined by a chippy “new money” junior whip, Tim (a scowling, greasy-haired Lee Ross), who snares Guy with a promise of promotion while encouraging the attentions of a pushy blonde researcher, Maggie (Fiona Glascott), who's trying to make a name for herself as a journalist.
Maggie knows which rebels (and editors) have been bought off in the past and is threatening an expose. Meanwhile, the Chief (Wilson) is furious with Christopher Biggins for having let down the Christmas party where he was supposed to play Santa - he himself had to stand in and indeed up, suffering the arousing embarrassment of dozens of nearly nubile young girls sitting on his Santa lap all afternoon. He's doubly determined to steady the vote and we hear noisy evidence of his bruising, persuasion tactics off stage.
The opposition deputy whip, Delia (a strikingly hard-edged Helen Schlesinger), calls by to fix the evening’s agenda. The Tories plan to collapse the debate while a lot of Labour MPs are holed up in a Trades Union dinner in Paddington. The Chief feigns a heart attack. Tim rigs an invasion of the chamber by gypsy protestors. A drugs scandal suddenly looms and you feel that another play has started.
The twists and turns pile up with a dizzying, headache-inducing swiftness. We are left wondering whether to applaud the honesty of the picture of “reality” in political chicanery, or to weep at the childishness with which our democracy operates. Wilson is defiantly funny, Bathurst as smooth as a Jermyn Street silk shirt (even if the costumes are donated by Marks and Spencer), and Fiona Glascott spot-on as a simpering, killer bitch journo on the make.