Writers: Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky
Director: Hannah Eidinow
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
How timely in the week of a General Election to remind us that politics is a dirty business. As a nation goes to the polls to decide whether it’s time for a change or better the devil you know, it’s easy to forget that the public vote is just a cog in the enormous Parliamentary machine which surreptitious deals and decision can control. But as any A-Level politics student will tell you, the British democratic system is the envy of the world, withstanding hundreds of years of reform and seamlessly marrying popular consent with monarchical government. In theory perhaps, because as this ruthless little play suggests the path to power is full of treachery and deceit.
In a tiny basement room in the bowels of Parliament, three MPs meet secretly to discuss the Tory leadership and who will be the next Prime Minister. The favourite Max Newman – a strangely familiar former gaff-prone Mayor of London, ex-newspaper editor and consummate game player – meets his rival contender the youthful Dan Regan who is blissfully unaware that Newman got his name on the ticket so he wouldn’t look like “the Gordon Brown of the Tory Party”. They are summoned by Chief Whip Eleanor Hopkirk who has a personal axe to grind with Newman and attempts to unseat him with squalid revelations. In that room, and not at the ballot box, the future of British politics will be decided and Regan will be forced to decide whether he wants to be ‘King or Kingmaker’.
This is a cleverly paced satire from Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky which in just 75 minutes depicts both the seamier side of politics and the how quickly political fortune can turn from unassailable triumph to ashes. The blurring of personal and political agendas told through monologue-asides adds depth to the characterisation, while the script is peppered with immensely quotable one-liners. In the opening monologue Hopkirk describes Newman as “a teddy bear crossed with a serial killer” while later Newman himself declares his wish to be seen as “the great unpolitician”, so at every turn the audience is forced to confront their own assumptions on spin and political presentation. The story itself may be a storm in a teacup but one that reveals unwelcome truths about our beloved democratic system.
Alan Cox unleashes a colossal performance as the monstrous and dangerously charming Newman. From the moment he bounds on stage full of Public School charisma and boyish enthusiasm, flicking his hair from his eyes, he relishes every poisonous line. But he also gives the character valuable nuance implying pity, regret and even explosions of anger to vary the tone. He is in fact the perfect politician, the audience is a clueless as his colleagues as to what is truth or fiction, and his snappy retorts mean you watch him with a smile on your face throughout. And for all his terrible deeds you may even want to vote for him at the end.
That’s partly because his seemingly innocent fellow MPs prove as detestable and as willing to play the game as he is. Laurence Dobiesz sits back for much of the action but believably takes Regan from rookie to manipulative player as events unfold. Joanna Bending offers plenty of fight as Hopkirk moving from attack to defence as the power shifts and it is interesting to see a play that is so male in its tone open with a female monologue. Director Hannah Eidinow has managed the limited room well, rotating her leads around three points to give the audience a perspective on everyone, although occasionally in this tiny space the performances get a little too big and less intimate than the dingy Parliamentary basement should imply.
Kingmaker is a fascinating and disconcerting insight into how politics really happens and how very personal it becomes when everyone shares the same backgrounds, history and secrets. However optimistic you want to be about the strength of public consent, it’s sobering to think that wherever you put that tiny cross on Election Day somewhere sometime a group of people met away from prying eyes and decided just who should be on that ballot.
Runs Until23 May| PhotoJeremy Abrahams