It may be set in the future, but there’s nothing in the least unrecognizable about Steve Thompson’s sharp-tongued, entertaining political satire. “Whipping It Up” is set six months into a less-than-brave new world of post-Blair Conservative party rule with a voting majority of just three. However, the amusingly presented behind-the-scenes chicanery in the office of the government whips is clearly identical to the manipulations of any government whose members have to be “whipped” into voting with the party.
Verisimilitude aside, what’s missing is the momentum to accelerate everything from well-observed comedy into the farce the play yearns to be. Thompson’s strongest suit is his creation of plausible political characters. Robert Bathurst is beautifully smarmy as the old-school-tie Tory for whom “happiness is the sight of one’s constituency slowly disappearing in the rear-view mirror.” He opens the play attempting to strong-arm new MP Guy (a resolute Nicholas Rowe) into abandoning his opposition to a bill being pushed though that would keep Gypsies and others from putting down roots anywhere.
His efforts are successfully supplemented by Tim (Lee Ross), the patronized new junior in the whips’ office who openly espouses youthfully greedy, ambitious careerism.
But no sooner has Guy been bought off with the promise of political advancement than we discover he’s just a front-man. What’s really going on is a leadership challenge from a far larger group of MPs.
Thompson then asks auds to keep that idea on hold while he introduces Richard Wilson’s superbly curmudgeonly Chief Whip: Entering dressed as a furious Santa, he growls, “I’d rather eat my own liver than wear that wig again.” But this master manipulator is also kept to one side while yet another plotline is set up.
Fiona Glascott plays blond, leggy researcher Maggie. In her first scene she seems to be on the brink of using blackmail. But no sooner has that been set up than she is unmasked as a no-holds-barred journalist with a file full of names of government rebels, which she’ll trade in return for dirt about the whips.
Tension rises as we try to work out whose side she’ll be on and just how far the whips will go to win her information and cover their tracks.
The trouble with all this is that the wheeler-dealering is attendant upon characters we never see. That makes it hard to feel what’s at stake. It’s to Thompson’s credit that he doesn’t try to oversimplify the bribery and corruption into an overly neat plot, but the structural flaws mean he fails to keep his juggling act going.
That problem is most obvious in the second half, where the Maggie-vs.-the-whips-plot spirals into further complications. With so many strands that don’t fully come together, the potential payoff is deflated.
Terry Johnson’s production is polished and precisely timed. There is, however, a sense that this play is in the wrong theater. The intimacy of the black box at the Bush, with its tiny audience on two sides, militates against the comedy.
The cast is first-rate, including a terrific Helen Schlesinger as Labor’s supremely sophisticated, lethal deputy whip. Yet the playing feels slightly tentative because Thompson’s laugh lines — there are heaps of them — are designed to be belted to the back of a larger space.
That enviable way with smart-mouthed dialogue makes it obvious why Thompson’s TV career is taking off. In its strongest moments, the play seems to cry out for the expanse of a proscenium-arch theater, and a transfer definitely is in the cards. Should the move happen, however, it would expose the lack of an ultimately satisfying narrative. This is only Thompson’s second stage play. Maybe next time.