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On a week when the current political crisis at the Palace of Westminster tops any drama on the London stage it was initially rather difficult to work up any enthusiasm for this rather dry and all too familiar satire on ‘80s Toryism. Towards the end however the play, which up to then appeared rather vapid, makes a sudden handbrake turn. Everything is thrown into relief and we end up with a work which is a touching and poignant examination of untended grief. It explores how following a bereavement, grief can eat away at a soul and destroy the lives of those left behind.
Writers will be jealous of author Simon Woods who for this, his debut play, gets a high profile, sold out, National Theatre run thanks to the star casting of Alex Jennings and Lindsay Duncan as the leads in this two-hander. They play Robin, an ‘80s Tory Cabinet Minister and Diana, his Labour supporting wife.
She’s buried away, getting quietly sozzled, in their worn-out Cotswold home during the week (great design by Hildegard Bechtler), while he returns for the weekends. On his return, rather like George and Martha, they fall into a familiar pattern of vituperative arguments and cat and mouse games. But all that barbed banter hides a well of unhappiness and so we wonder about its source.
He (a fictional character) has been part of the government which created the infamous Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 which forbade the teaching of “the acceptability of homosexuality” in schools and while this is only one of many policy points on which they diverge, it turns out to be a crucial one.
He goads her for her drinking and her left-wing sentimentality and Woods has Robin deftly elucidates the Tory philosophy which at that time was at its zenith. She, hilariously, goads him and his kind about the assumption that they made it because they were somehow brilliant, rather than just merely privileged. She mocks his wilful philistinism, his absence of an inner life, his lack of emotional intelligence and attributes all that to the frostiness of his upper middle-class parents, of whom she despaired. There’s a revelation when she pulls out one of his old diaries which she’s uncovered. He contrasts it with how Hansard (the daily verbatim record of Parliament) will provide “a record of my limited contributions”.
Jennings and Duncan are like watching a pair of top tennis pros. You marvel at their volleys but the play, which runs just 90 minutes straight through, suffers from early inertia. You wonder why they’re both still stuck with each other and why someone as accomplished as her hasn’t moved on from the dutiful Minister’s wife role she claims to have forsaken. Later revelations help illuminate why.
Jennings perfectly captures the insouciant smugness of Robin while Duncan must mine much deeper to get underneath Diana’s layers of deadening irony. By the end, this couple, who never touch, are united in a form of release.
Hansard will be broadcast live to over 700 UK cinemas and more worldwide on 7 November. See www.ntlive.com
for further details.