BWW Review: 1979 is a Crash Course in Canadian Politics
What happened in the Prime Minister's office on the ill-fated day of Joe Clark's budget vote? Michael Healey's play on the downfall of the 16th PM of Canada, produced by The 1979 Group and directed by Miles Potter, explores the ideology of the morally-motivated Albertan and his interactions with some of the most well-known names in modern Canadian politics.
The show is a comedic and introspective look at Canada's shortest-lived Prime Minister, Joe Clark (Philip Riccio), who is introduced as, "not anyone's first choice." The story observes the tumultuous debates that occurred in his office on the day of the infamous budget vote - a vote that cost the Progressive their first government in nearly two decades. Several other prominent Canadian figures appear, portrayed by the shows' other two actors.
By all accounts, the Joe Clark in Healey's story is not a born leader. Riccio channels the quiet Albertan conservative extremely endearingly - his brown-corduroy clad appearance allows him to fade into the wood-on-wood-on-wood setting of his office. Although Clark's allies and enemies in the political sphere frequently label him as two-dimensional and simple, Riccio brings a subtle rockstar quality to Clark in that he often disappears from the mindset of his office into a range of rock and pop music hits (sound design by Thomas Geddes).
The use of music throughout the show is well placed, including the opening scene where the volume is used to drown out John Crosbie (Christopher Hunt, who performs several roles throughout the show) as he rages about the party's chances of survival after the budget announcement. The only figure who could upstage Hunt's rage-induced and whirlwind Crosbie is Hunt's portrayal of the infamous leader of the Liberal party, Pierre Trudeau, who is played here as an annoying, charismatic leader who falls more often than not into unlikable-territory.
In a similarly unpleasant, yet brilliantly acted role, Clark's biggest political rival and arch-nemesis Brian Mulroney (Jamie Konchak) slides into Clark's office with a sleazy pitch and a hidden sense of unbridled anger - seemingly pent up after months of watching Clark's people-first approach to politics. Konchak plays Mulroney as instantly untrustworthy but impossible to look away from. Her take on the Prime Minister's independent and ambitious wife, Maureen McTeer, brings a softness to the show, as she defends her husband not only against others, but against himself. In addition to the necessary roles of antagonist and supporter, Konchak's entrance towards the end of the play as a parliamentary aide named Stephen (Harper - not a true event, but one in which Healey exercised his dramatic license to great effect) allows for a fantastic piece of dialogue between the morally rebellious Harper and the societal-minded Clark - and sets up for a fantastic closing moment in the show.
Riccio is consistent throughout his interactions with each figure, and his physical and vocal mannerisms set Clark apart from the other characters in a huge way. He listens, rarely interjects, and remains sympathetic when he hits a breaking point and snaps. Riccio then turns around and manages to make a grown man eating a sandwich in near-silence kind of adorable. There's a constant sense of duality to Clark that makes the character so interesting and Riccio seems perfectly suited to his temperament and mannerisms in this production.
Setting the stage for a number of heavy conversations about morals versus self-preservation requires the coordination between set (Steve Lucas), lighting (Nick Blais), and costume design (costumes by Jennifer Lee Arsenault, wigs by Nati Atuan), which all work together wonderfully to transport the audience to Parliament Hill in the late 70s. Exposition throughout the show, courtesy of projections (projection design by Scott Reid, sound and projection coordination by Martin Nishikawa) were done in a tongue-in-cheek style, but very helpful for those who might not have paid nearly enough attention during high school Canadian history classes. At times, the projections deliver some of the funniest moments by forcing prominent Canadian politicians to stand beside the description of what literally befell them - enforcing the idea that comedy and truth usually go hand in hand.
1979 is a bit like a crash course on a very specific moment of Canadian history - and this production is able to pull off the dialogue-heavy play with a great understanding of the comedy and the underlying sadness that comes with Joe Clark's extremely short position as Prime Minister. It leaves audiences with the sense that had he played by the same book as everyone else on the Hill, our political climate today would look very different.
1979 runs through January 27 at Berkeley Street Theatre, 26 Berkeley St., Toronto, ON.
For more information or to purchase tickets, visit https://www.canadianstage.com/Online/default.asp?BOparam::WScontent::loadArticle::permalink=1979&BOparam::WScontent::loadArticle::context_id=
main photo: Philip Riccio as Joe Clark by Dahlia Katz