What a smart idea. Alistair Beaton’s political comedy Feelgood seized on the machinations of spin doctors to nail New Labour’s obsession with image; Steve Thompson’s splendidly caustic Whipping it Up (first seen at the Bush Theatre last November) delves into the Whips’ office to give us the entertaining spectacle of another party squirming as it attempts to square the circle.
We are in a not too distant future in which the Tories have squeaked home, but with a slender majority of three. Six months after victory in the polls, the shine is already wearing off and the Whips are working overtime to keep the stragglers in line. Herding cats would be simpler. It’s Christmas, the PM is away in the States, firming up the special relationship on the golf course, and a seemingly small-scale bill about tent poles, designed to deter Travellers, is causing an unexpected rumpus. Outside parliament, gaggles of campers in cagoules hurl toasted marshmallows at passing members of parliament; inside a small band of rebels is threatening to vote against the bill. But what begins with protests of conscience from a wet-behind-the-ears backbencher (the wonderfully gangly Nicholas Rowe) escalates into a full-blown leadership challenge.
Thompson does explore serious issues: loyalty, betrayal and the possibility that a government might stand or fall depending on how good the Whips’ delaying tactics are. But really, the appeal of the play is his glee and ours at watching the greasy world of politics in motion and the frantic attempts to stave off chaos. It’s the familiar world of Yes Minister, but with a twist, as the Whips deploy carrots, sticks and dirty tricks to maintain the illusion of unity.
The combination of sweltering panic and smooth one-liners is delicious. Thompson writes with great brio, and Tamara Harvey’s excellent cast relishes this. Richard Wilson, lemon-faced and peevish as the Chief Whip, is flanked by the suavely manipulative deputy, Robert Bathurst, and the bully-boy junior, Lee Ross, and opposed by Helen Schlesinger’s shrewd Labour Whip. Much of the joy lies in watching them deliver lethal put-downs – indeed, the timing is sometimes almost too slick, the gags almost too numerous. And although Thompson’s exposé is delightful, it isn’t altogether surprising. But this is a skilfully crafted, hugely enjoyable comedy that shows real promise.
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