Centre stage for Edward Hall’s production of Sarah Helm’s new play is a double bed. And on that double bed is a pile of ministerial red boxes. It’s a telling image: symbolic of the conflicting loyalties in the play. Helm is married to Jonathan Powell, who was Tony Blair’s chief of staff during the Iraq war. Her debut play is a fictionalised account of that tense period and its impact on their domestic and personal life. The closer the war gets, the more red boxes pile up on the bed.
Here the couple at the centre become Laura and Nick, though the other characters – Tony, George, Kofi, Alastair – retain their real names. Laura tells us that when Tony became prime minister “he just arrived in our lives”: that was strain enough. But we watch the tensions mount as the war rolls over the horizon, with Laura passionately opposed and aghast at the increasingly frantic justifications for invasion.
It is a fascinating subject and yet here it makes curiously stiff drama. Here we are, eavesdropping on the build-up to one of the most controversial episodes in recent British history, and yet it’s not that gripping and several conversations feel surprisingly stilted. It’s not helped by the fact that we are never quite sure what is true and what isn’t. And though Laura is right about the elusive weapons of mass destruction, this has the unhelpful effect of making her seem rather smug as a character, despite being played with vivid intelligence by the superb Maxine Peake.
But the play does give a witty impression of how it feels when crucial affairs of state crash into your bedroom. Helm has a great eye for detail and the minutiae of domestic chaos: Nick struggling with a broken washer in the bathroom as Bush comes on the line; the au pair covering the attorney general’s report in icing sugar. The play is peppered too with intriguing nuggets of information: Tony will only play tennis with his coach, for example. And it raises interesting questions about the strained loyalties in any relationship in which one partner has an all-absorbing job.
Peake holds the stage with her warmth and Lloyd Owen makes an attractive, conflicted Nick. Patrick Baladi, meanwhile, is hugely enjoyable as Tony. But for all its intrigue and promise, the play never quite catches fire.