Review: 1979, Finborough Theatre

Proud Haddock present the European première of Michael Healey’s political comedy

By: Jan. 05, 2024
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Review: 1979, Finborough Theatre

Review: 1979, Finborough Theatre In the mid-2010s it started to feel as if there was a general election in the UK every couple of months (although in reality they came in 2015, 2017 and 2019), so as the nation waits for Rishi Sunak to finally call this year’s vote, it seems appropriate to bring some satirical comedy to the stage.

1979 was quite a big year both politically and culturally, but Canadian Prime Minister Joe Clark is perhaps one of the lesser known figures to emerge from that time – his Liberal opposite number Pierre Trudeau (or at the very least his son, Justin) is probably a more recognisable name.

Elected in May 1979, by December a vote on an unpopular budget looks set to oust the Progressive Conservatives and force another general election; Clark has some options to try and secure power, but prefers instead to trust in democracy and his party’s “moral right” to govern. Interactions between him and his colleagues, his rivals, and his wife don’t seem to make him want to change his mind – an impassioned speech from a young Stephen Harper makes an impression, but also doesn’t sway him. MPs may be known as Right Honourable, but is there really any honour left in politics?

Watching characters scrambling around to desperately try and cling to power is very familiar viewing in the UK, having spent the last three years trying to keep on top of various cabinet reshuffles and changes of Conservative Party leader; this is what happens if you listen to the advice of people who simply want to stay in government rather than try to effect change by implementing actual policy. It’s also interesting to see that it wasn’t just the UK having majority issues in the 1970s – see former Finborough Theatre playwright-in-residence James Graham’s This House for a detailed and entertaining run-down.

Despite this almost triggering familiarity, it is nice to see a depiction of a politician who actually has principles (and chooses to stick to them) – regardless of his political affinity. They are rare beasts indeed, but every now and again they can be found.

The trouble with producing a show about real Canadian politics in the UK is that only a small minority of the audience is likely to have any grasp of the background – helpfully there is text projected onto the back screen at times, introducing various characters and providing some extra information, however this does become a bit much. Even though the high volume of reading is acknowledged at one point by the projections, the play ends with another splurge of text akin to that which you’d see over the end credits of a biopic; it would really have been preferable for someone to speak some of these lines, as ultimately it’s a bit of a damp squib ending for a piece of live theatre.

There are some funny moments (many assisted by the projected text providing context), but no real belly laughs – although that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as a packed audience still squeezes five people onto a four-person bench, making breathing an effort (let alone laughing). It feels a little under-rehearsed, as there was quite a bit of stumbling over lines during this performance; this isn’t really ideal in a show that’s fast-paced by design.

On a more positive note, Mim Houghton’s set design is excellent – at one point Clark makes a comment about the sheer amount of wood that went into making the Prime Minister’s office, and this is a very realistic facsimile. It’s particularly striking given that Finborough Theatre is a black box studio. Although early on the volume is slightly too loud (it’s impossible to hear the dialogue), Laura Alyousif’s sound design is largely very good – and the choice of “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” to open the show is very much appreciated.

Overall the cast of three handle the demands of the play pretty well, with Samantha Coughlan and Ian Porter doing a good job of switching between a variety of supporting characters from scene to scene – a highlight is Coughlan’s characterisation of a young Stephen Harper, even if that sequence does drag a bit (and overuses the word “hegemony”). Joseph May is excellent as Joe Clark, showing the human being behind the politician and demonstrating some expert comic timing.

Michael Healey’s play has its enjoyable moments, but ends up as more of a history lesson than an out-and-out comedy. Its 80-minute running time makes it worth a watch, but just remember to keep your reading glasses close to hand to ensure you can take in all aspects of the production!

1979 is at Finborough Theatre until 27 January

Photo credit: Simon Annand