The Bush Theatre's management doubtless cannot believe their luck: the story of Steven Norris M.P. and his five mistresses hits the headlines just as they première a production about a philandering government minister.
Lesley Bruce has written an ingenious though over-convoluted play which vividly embodies a cynical commonplace: the belief that politicians will deny and falsify as horribly much as is necessary to retain power. Layer by layer she peels away an onion of initially farcical lies and cover-ups surrounding protagonist Bernard Snowdon's scandalous evening in Bromley with his secretary. What is revealed is a core of ambition and brutality far more damnable than mere sordid bed-hopping. As Bernard's revolted wife Caroline remarks, "This isn't Watergate; this is Chappaquiddick."
Director Geraldine McEwan pitches the performance so that, seemingly without a change of pace or direction, comedy shades into more disturbing territory and laughter dies uneasily. Jonathan Coy's excellent Bernard is no Alan B'Stard caricature: his fretting is tightly-wound, composed of twitches rather than operatic gestures. As Caroline, Deborah Findlay survives the occasional purple patch to carry off unfussily the character's numerous roles: not-so-innocent interrogator, stern voice of conscience and supportive wife.
The script is patterned around Caroline. As the former secretary who wed her boss, she provides a norm against which Bernard's current bimbo is measured. Flashbacks to the Machiavellian homilies of her secretarial school principal indicate that Caroline is better versed in unobtrusive manipulation than her blustering husband; what matters is to supply "the appearance of excellence." When an odious younger MP arrives to aid in the cover-up Caroline reviles then casually, mockingly seduces him – an object lesson in the routine dishonour of Honourable Members.
Bruce shoehorns in a few too many twists of plot and significant images. Her use of flashback tails off, replaced by a kind of theatrical superimposition which is not as eloquent as she hopes; in the home straight, moreover, the play careers into mawkishness that the final savage sting fails to deflate (whether sincere or ironic, three verses of the hymn "Lord of All Hopefulness" is simply excessive). Robin Don's witty set elaborates a minor fairground motif in the script by suggesting a dodgem track onstage, with coloured lights strung around the perimeter and desks and beds trailing electrical poles up to the canopy above. It's an apt metaphor for the play as a whole: too many bumps and not enough dodging, but the sparks still fly.
Written for the London Evening Standard.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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