You will be redirected back to your article in seconds


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.

Laura - Maxine Peake
Nick - Lloyd Owen
Tony - Patrick Baladi

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.

Popular on Variety


Hampstead Theater; 288 seats; £29 $47 top

Production: A Hampstead Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Sarah Helm. Directed by Edward Hall.

Creative: Sets and costumes, Francis O'Connor; lighting, Ben Ormerod; sound, Paul Groothuis; production manager, Dominic Fraser. Opened, reviewed July 20, 2011. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.

Cast: Laura - Maxine Peake
Nick - Lloyd Owen
Tony - Patrick BaladiWith: Stephen Critchlow, Anna Koval, Michael Simkins, Colin Stinton.

More Legit

  • Bella Bella review

    Off Broadway Review: Harvey Fierstein's 'Bella Bella'

    Harvey Fierstein is one busy guy. A Broadway institution with four Tony Awards for acting (“Torch Song Trilogy,” “Hairspray”) and playwriting (“Torch Song Trilogy,” “La Cage aux Folles”), he has also written everything from teleplays (“The Wiz Live!”, “Hairspray Live!”) to an award-winning children’s book, “The Sissy Duckling.” His movie work includes “Mrs. Doubtfire” and [...]

  • Soft Power Jeanine Tesori

    Listen: Jeanine Tesori and the 'Soft Power' of Musicals to Change Minds

    The title of “Soft Power,” the new play-cum-musical by playwright David Henry Hwang and composer Jeanine Tesori, refers to cultural influence — in this case the cultural influence of America on China, and of China on the U.S. According to Tesori, the term might also describe the force that musical theater itself can exert in [...]

  • Jane Alexander James Cromwell

    Jane Alexander, James Cromwell to Star in Broadway's 'Grand Horizons'

    Jane Alexander and James Cromwell will head up the Broadway cast of Bess Wohl’s “Grand Horizons.” The two Oscar nominees will star as Bill and Nancy, a couple whose five-decade-long relationship unravels when they move to a retirement community. After Nancy decides she wants a divorce, her family life is sent into disarray. The show [...]

  • Chasing Rainbows review

    New Jersey Theater Review: Judy Garland Bio 'Chasing Rainbows'

    Judy Garland’s voice was unparalleled and rich, an emotive contralto that lasted long into her later years with a loud and winning showiness to go with its melodramatic nuances. But that voice concealed a troubled backstory, as the woman born Frances Ethel Gumm toted the baggage of a closeted gay father, an ugly duckling’s insecurity [...]

  • Broadway Review: David Byrne's 'American Utopia'

    Broadway Review: David Byrne's 'American Utopia'

    One constant of David Byrne’s long and prolific career is his ability to grow a seemingly simple idea into something brilliant, whether it’s the melody of “Road to Nowhere” or the concept of the “Stop Making Sense” tour some 36 years ago, where the premise of bringing out nine musicians, one at a time per [...]

  • The Sound Inside review

    Broadway Review: 'The Sound Inside' Starring Mary-Louise Parker

    Mary-Louise Parker will take your breath away with her deeply felt and sensitively drawn portrait of a tenured Yale professor who treasures great literature, but has made no room in her life for someone to share that love with. The other thesp in this two-hander is Will Hochman, endearing in the supportive role of a [...]

  • Little Shop of Horrors review

    Off Broadway Review: 'Little Shop of Horrors'

    With its strains of kitschy doo-wop and its sci-fi B-movie inspirations, the quaint 1982 musical “Little Shop of Horrors” hardly seems a thing of modern-day revivalism, even despite its touches of S&M. Yet this year alone, not only is there an Off Broadway production of the blackly comic “Little Shop” featuring Jonathan Groff of Netflix’s [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content