by Sarah Helm.
Hampstead Theatre Eton Avenue Swiss Cottage NW3 3EU To 13 August 2011.
Mon-Sat 7.30pm Mat Wed 2.30pm, Sat 3pm.
Audio-described 6 Aug 3pm (+ Touch Tour).
Captioned 9 Aug.
Runs 2hr 30min One interval.
TICKETS: 020 7722 9301.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 20 July.
‘Fictionalised memoir’ that works best when focusing away from the memoirist.
Partner of Prime Minister Tony’s Chief of Staff as Britain drifts towards war in Iraq, Laura’s life is busy. Builders and painters are in, the children need attention, and somebody has to make her husband’s sandwiches. And that’s before anti-war protesters arrive.
How close is this to writer Sarah Helm’s own experience? Did she, as partner of Tony Blair’s Chief of Staff, listen-in and make notes on secure-line conversations? One such note becomes vital to events – though its fate is left uncertain, bringing a welcome ambiguity about shifting pressures on one loyalty to a play that’s sometimes over-explicit.
Sarah, played by Maxine Peake as conscientious and intelligent, trying to protect her family and her values, is the character allowed to talk direct to the audience. But writing about a character so close to home, it can seem Helm is letting her off lightly. Laura has a certainty of rightness that, on stage, become arrogance or smugness.
It’s intriguing to see partner Nick letting their servant Marisia fit her life round their arrangements, then acting as effective valet to the Prime Minister. There’s no such balancing for Laura, who comes over as always right. Yet she never questions how the builders, painters, terraced home or Marisia get paid for (we know Laura has a job but don’t see her do it).
It’s during act two, when events move to number 10, the play truly grips (helped by a suddenly-topical Rupert Murdoch intervention). Ironically, Laura becomes a side-character (perhaps that’s the point) as wider loyalties crumble. Tony is abandoned by the Americans and the budget-slashed security service. Suggesting Blair’s manner but not going for an impersonation, Patrick Baladi creates room for the Prime Minister’s anguish as his defence against the mounting war protesters crumbles.
Edward Hall’s busy production, on Francis O’Connor’s set of freestanding doors and alarms suggesting security and vulnerability, provides an energy that doesn’t disguise a first act which seems like special pleading, but maximises the later action’s tension, to the conclusion where loyalty, and principle (the play blurs the two), hang in the air between woman and man.
Tony: Patrick Baladi.
Tom/George/Voice of Pete: Stephen Critchlow.
Marisia/Voice of Switch: Anna Koval.
Nick: Lloyd Owen.
Laura: Maxine Peake.
C/Rupert/Alastair: Michael Simkins.
James/America Military Voice: Colin Stinton.
Director: Edward Hall.
Designer: Francis O’Connor.
Lighting: Ben Ormerod.
Sound: Paul Groothuis.
Costume: Caroline Hughes.
Assistant director: Oliver Rose.