Review: Devil with the Blue Dress (Bunker Theatre)

Kevin Armento’s play focuses on the sex scandal which rocked the White House while Bill Clinton was president

Flora Montgomery in Devil with the Blue Dress
Flora Montgomery in Devil with the Blue Dress
© Helen Murray

Raking over a real-life sex scandal onstage means airing a lot of dirty laundry in public – but at least the dirty laundry in question here has the distinction of being the most notorious in history. Therein lies both the fascination and the flimsiness of Kevin Armento’s Devil with the Blue Dress. A cross-examination of the affair that brought the Clinton administration to its knees, it is at once a fixating tale of political intrigue and a big dollop of salacious tittle-tattle.

Because this is, at one level, Hilary Clinton’s origin story: the beginning of her doomed 2016 presidential campaign, and at the same time, its end. Armento makes clear that while her husband’s affair pushed her poll ratings up, it also led Hilary to shut herself down, arguably the flaw that kept her from power – it’s so pure it's Greek. Flora Montgomery plays her in a punch pink trouser suit, domineering and brittle at the same time. She’s determined to control the way this story gets told, but desperate too. This, she frequently insists, is her play.

At the same time though, it’s also Monica Lewinsky’s fantasy – one that slowly sours into a nightmare. A starry-eyed, self-satisfied White House intern, still only 22, she attempts to steer the story as a grand romance. Daniella Isaacs imbues her first fluttering flirtations with the President with a fateful significance, portraying seedy back office blow jobs as if they were the truest expression of subservient love. She swings by his office, swoons over his gifts and sneaks secret Valentine’s missive into the Washington Post. "Every play needs an antagonist," Lewinsky needles Hilary.

Armento, pointedly, keeps Bill Clinton himself out of the picture, instead handing control of the story back to the five women directly involved in the affair. As well as his wife and mistress, his daughter Chelsea, his ever-loyal secretary Betty Curry and Lewinsky’s Republican colleague and confidante Linda all have their say. They pick at Clinton’s perjury – the precise nature of his awkward, iconic denial – and bicker between themselves about who carries the blame. It’s timely: a precursor to the #MeToo movement; a warning around the need for solidarity. Each, in their own way, is betrayed: by a husband, a lover, a father, a boss and a leader. Bill screws them all.

Each embodies him, adopting that husky, deep Arkansas drawl – a voice "dusted with gravel," as Lewinsky describes it – into a microphone. Even absent, his words are the loudest in the room; a measure of presidential power and political stardom. He sounds like a two-bit Elvis impersonator: a cheesy, sleazy self-construction. Everything about him is mannered, from his practiced politician’s smile to his commanding seduction technique. It’s vile, but it slips down easy; so slick his predation passes unobstructed, if not unnoticed.

For all this, there’s a stubborn linearity to Armento’s play that makes it all a bit plodding, and it’s not helped by a production that’s short on pace. Joshua McTaggart’s staging would be far sharper were it played straight through, if only his cast would stop savouring their speeches. Tashomi Balfour’s live sax score instills the sultriness of a Mills and Boon novel, where something itchier might have prioritised the political urgency. Instead, the events in Devil with the Blue Dress are less historical earthshaker and more presidential knee-trembler.

Devil with the Blue Dress runs at the Bunker Theatre until 28 April.