If there were such a beast as a left-leaning upscale tabloid newspaper, tyro playwright Sarah Helm’s fictionalized memoir would be its theatrical equivalent. Play draws on Helm’s experiences as the wife of Tony Blair’s chief of staff Jonathan Powell in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The central couple have fictional names, and a central plot strand about evidence of WMDs is fabricated. But otherwise, the play depends on titillating, insider references to real-life events and figures, dressed up in a comfortably bourgeois package (helmed by Edward Hall) and delivered with the pat conviction of hindsight.
Act one is set in the home of Laura (Maxine Peake) and Nick (Lloyd Owen), a spacious South London abode that is (cue symbolism) under renovation. Action alternates between multicharacter scenes and Laura’s monologues delivered directly to the audience (sensitively delineated by Ben Ormerod’s lighting shifts), in which she describes how her family’s life was transformed by Nick’s work as “Tony’s” closest adviser.
Much of the interest in the first act comes from the enactment of former journalist Laura’s full access to Nick’s communications, which includes listening in on Tony’s phone calls with (the unseen but heard) George W. Bush and “poor Kofi” Annan. Hall’s sleek staging underlines the sense of collapse between public and private by having Patrick Baladi as Tony wander non-naturalistically through Nick and Laura’s bedroom, talking on a cordless phone, as the couple crouch intensely over their handset.
Helm’s inexperience as a playwright shows in her inability to manage the balance of plot and character. Staunchly anti-war, Laura grows increasingly distraught as the invasion of Iraq starts to feel inevitable. But in an attempt to give Laura agency, Helm nearly transforms her into the moral and emotional conscience of the nation (if not the Western world). It is Laura who spots early on that a source Bush is claiming can prove the existence of WMDs seems spurious; the action of the second act, set in 10 Downing St. and spinning around a dinner party between Laura and Nick, Tony and the heads of the CIA and MI5, proves her instinct right. Acting on her beliefs would have meant Laura speaking out, but Helm shunts responsibility for this onto a minor character, a gesture that feels a bit like retrospective justification for inaction.
Peake and Owen do heroic work in remaining committed to their characterizations and providing the audience some guidance through the dubiousness of the material, though almost inevitably, Peake sometimes succumbs to shrillness.
Baladi offers a superb Blair imitation, but the actions he’s called upon to perform (including playing a lengthy scene while preening in a mirror) underline the central question the play raises: What are Helm, Hall and the Hampstead Theater trying to say politically by staging this play now? Taking potshots at Blair is hardly a novel activity in 2011. We’ve been backwards and forwards through this material in the media, in scholarship, and indeed on the stage, from “Black Watch” to “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” to “Stuff Happens” to “Justifying War.” The innovation here is Helm’s insider position, but this is mobilized mostly to give audiences an opportunity for self-congratulatory chuckling at familiar references (including a fortuitously topical vocal appearance by “Rupert,” urging Blair towards war).
The elegant look of Hall’s staging gives production a classy sheen, but this is gossip dressed up as drama.