Review: Loyalty, Hampstead Theatre
IN A NUTSHELL
Sarah Helm's authentic insider tale of Gulf War blunders makes for fitfully fascinating viewing.
Foreign journalist Sarah Helm did not have to travel far to find material for her first play. She rolled over in bed and bumped into her husband.
He is Jonathan Powell and was Tony Blair's chief of staff and therein lies a tale.
This is authentic insider stuff. On opening night TV politicos Adam Boulton and Michael Crick were no doubt straining in the stalls to tally their own recollections with tales from the other side of the black door.
It was commendably pragmatic of Powell to allow his wife to run riot with the blunders of the Iraq war through the fictional pairing of Laura and chief of staff Nick who works for a light-footed narcissist Tony.
Although Helm uses the thin veil of "fictional memoir", she finds no reticence in writing "herself" as a liberal champion, with knowing insight, juggling bath-time with a one-woman fight for truth and justice and her share of the covers.
Good job that magnetic Maxine Peake is called upon to turn this sanctimonious goody-two-shoes into a character. She manages to balance frenticism and a measure of moral calm while maintaining a twinkle in her eye (occasionally drowned by a tear).
Lloyd Owen, so commanding in Blood And Gifts at the National, adopts a similar ramrod role, buffeted by the harsh winds of realpolitik. He merely hints at the conflict between his loyalty to his own beliefs, his leader and his partner but he is not given sufficient room to go much further.
The light-touch take on Blair by Patrick Baladi is a gem. He makes little attempt at an impression but offers sufficient deft vignettes (the toothy "hi", the imagined tennis stroke, the vague sense of the shuffling schoolboy) to elicit laughs where perhaps they were not planned.
Other characters heard from afar (Bush, Campbell et al) also swap character for trusted caricature suggesting either weak writing or (more worryingly) skewered truth.
Ultimately, the busy, noisy, fractured play - under the direction of Edward Hall - is most convenient not as a wrought drama of domestic and global loyalty but as a political comedy, more akin to Er Yes Prime Minister than a searing indictment of truth as a casualty of war.
It is entertainment through recognition. Having lived through years of inquiries, leaks and books, we all know the ins and outs of the blunders that took us to war, so having them played out by apparent (clueless) insiders is comforting and nostalgic rather than disturbing (Allo, Allo anyone?)
Relevance is provided with the occasional parallels with hackgate - although the commanding voice of Murdoch telling Blair to go to war was, by a matter of hours, overtaken by events.
In this play of two halves (domestic travails followed by No.10 tantrums), Laura hovers like everywoman, her heart on her sleeve, her conscious unmangled, her courage undimmed, earnestly tugging away on the emergency cord of a runaway train.
Too good to be true? Laura, yes; the play not so much.
Until August 13. Go to hampsteadtheatre.com