BWW Review: THE LAST TEMPTATION OF BORIS JOHNSON, Park Theatre
Jonathan Maitland can write an incisive political satire, capturing the dilemmas that politics throws at its men and women, principles vying with pragmatism, loyalty with ambition. I know this because he did so, in this very theatre, four years ago with Dead Sheep. But, not for the first time when Brexit raises its basilisk head, I longed to turn the clock back.
We first meet Boris Johnson in February 2016, wrestling with whether to back Leave (as dinner party guest, Michael Gove, would like) or Remain (as an unseen Oliver Letwin would prefer). He is visited by visions of Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, who offer political analysis at about the level of a trio of brightish Year 11s, before he jumps to Leave having been persuaded to do so by an unseen lawyer talking about sovereignty. Precisely what made the difference is left somewhat unclear.
In Act Two, we're ten years in the future and Boris is with another woman (natch) and is seizing his chance to run for the leadership of the Tory party (natch). And he botches it again (natch), a Bustered (sic) flush as much in the imagined future as in the known past.
The play has three key issues which are never satisfactorily resolved.
Firstly. we know everything that happens in Act One - the exposition surely largely unnecessary for a North London audience who have bought a ticket for a play with this title - so any dramatic tension dissipates before it has even begun to build.
Secondly, the play (in stark contrast to Maitland's Geoffrey Howe-based Dead Sheep) relentlessly rejects the skewer in favour of the sledgehammer. Newspaper proprietor, Evgeny Lebedev, is involved purely to name drop - over and over and over again. There's a Dominic Raab joke that is used, once , twice and then a third time with an explanation - I almost groaned audibly.
Worse, the caricatures overwhelm the characters; even the great Steve Nallon's Margaret Thatcher is just a voice and a walk, as she surely would not behave like that, off centre, waiting her turn. The women (Mrs Gove aka Sarah Vine and Mrs Johnson/GF aka Marina Wheeler/Caitlin) are terribly underwritten, merely a backdrop for the boys' Upper Sixth Remove willy-waving.
The third issue is that the play offers no new insights into Brexit or its two principal architects - Boris is still a womanising opportunist shit and Gove a self-righteous backstabber. Maitland's inside knowledge, which so animated his Howe play, is apparently AWOL for this more recent imbroglio.
Will Barton gets Boris's ticks and patterns of speech that underpin his amoral cunning - but, as the man himself is about as broad as it's possible to be, how can his portrayal not grate in its dispiritingly carnivalesque excess?
Dugald Bruce-Lockhart contorts his face into that Govian compression that makes him appear to be a pair of lips wearing glasses, but we never find out why Gove was won over to Leave and then won over to the Stop Boris camp. Tim Wallers (as Tony Blair and Huw Edwards) shows us what Mike Yarwood would be doing in the 21st century - technically good, but ever so slightly predictable and dull.
Davina Moon and Arabella Weir do what they can with their roles, but that's not much I'm afraid.
Ultimately, for a play that satirises its subjects, it just isn't funny enough. Jokes (and there are plenty) do not land, are repeated (not just the Raab one) and rehash over-familiar stories of Boris's pranksterish japes in his days as the Daily Telegraph's European Community correspondent. A few belly laughs or a wry smile at a vituperative barb striking home can forgive much, but they're about as absent as Boris's moral compass around women.
There's plenty of the raw material for drama and comedy in both these characters and Brexit's omnishambles (remember when that word was a thing), but this play fails to mine either seam with any conviction, falling between two stools.
Perhaps a 52:48 split of any two elements in any single enterprise is doomed to messy failure.
Photo Pamela Raith