The Theatreguide.London Review
Hampstead Theatre Summer 2011
Sarah Helm, a former political journalist whose partner was Tony Blair's chief of staff, has written a play about a political journalist whose partner is Tony Blair's chief of staff, focussing on 2003-2004, the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq and the aftermath as no weapons of mass destruction were found.
So what we have here is an insider's peep behind the curtain, a history lesson, and a drama, and Loyalty is decreasingly successful on each of those levels.
There can be no doubt, even if the story is fictionalised, that Helm's picture of how things operated is accurate, and it is the little touches – the way the chief of staff's several phones are constantly ringing, the machinery that allows him to listen in on hot line conversations with Washington, and the like – that are both fascinating and convincing.
One might add to that list her characterisations, with the caveat that they are one person's perceptions – the portrait of Blair, played by Patrick Baladi as an amiable dimwit whose only apparent talents are off-the-cuff speechmaking and polishing his own shoes, and of George W. Bush (heard only on the telephone) as less of a fool than he's too often portrayed and more of a foxily vague and un-pin-downable political animal.
Her pictures of the American and British intelligence chiefs distancing themselves in different ways from their failures are dramatically satisfying, whether true or not.
What keeps Loyalty from succeeding, aside from the inescapable awareness that this is not a wholly objective account, is that it doesn't work as drama.
The only plot or human story Helm can hang the history lesson on is the strain the political events put on the central couple's relationship. They both start off anti-war, with him thinking he can put some brakes on Blair's enthusiasm (just as Blair thought he could restrain Bush), only to have Blair's commitment to Bush pull him along, the chief's loyalty to his boss luring him into defending positions he had opposed, and the woman's love for her partner clashing with both her politics and her journalist's instincts.
Of all these, it is the couple who come out least scathed, which leaves us with an anticlimax. But even worse, this inevitably trivialises history, reducing it to the bathetic and even offensive notion that the Iraq War was bad because it upset one couple's romantic life, and neither Maxine Peake nor Lloyd Owen can make them seem worth the trouble.
What pleasures there are in Loyalty lie entirely in the incidentals of the peep behind the curtain. The fact that the story is trivialised and fictionalised limits its value as history lesson; the fact that we have little but history lesson to hold us limits its value as drama.
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Review - Loyalty - Hampstead Theatre 2011