Whipping It Up
Bush Theatre November-December 2006; New Ambassadors February-June 2007
Steve Thompson has written a sharp and wicked political satire that provides a thorough quota of laughs, an intriguing peep behind the political curtain, and the occasion for a couple of expert performances.
If much of its barb is directed at fairly easy targets – namely, hypocritical politicians - that's something you might only realise after your laughter has died down.
Set in an imagined near future in which the Conservatives have won with a tiny majority, the play observes the actions of the Tory whips, those MPs assigned the job of making sure everyone else shows up for parliamentary votes and toes the party line.
We watch at first as a backbencher wavering on a trivial bill is subjected to a carrot-and-stick routine by the whips until he becomes an enthusiastic convert.
But then, just as we've understood that that is how the whips operate, stakes get higher - it looks like a rump group in the party is going to use this minor bill to depose the Prime Minister - and the whips really get going.
And that's where the play's dirty fun comes in, as we see how very dirty they are willing to play, to outwit both the insurgents within and the Opposition without, not to mention a muckraking reporter snooping about in search of some scandal, any scandal, on anybody
Lies are told, blackmail is employed, truces and agreements are confirmed and then immediately violated, not just with the various foes but among themselves, as one whip or another is perfectly happy to screw a colleague (or seem to screw a colleague, as more often than not there is some sort of double blind going on) in furtherance of his own agenda.
And it is all done with a wit ('Whipping is not a contact sport' admonishes one to another who's getting a little too unsubtle) and Old Boy Network snobbery (The most junior and unpolished of the whips is dismissed by his superior as a barrow boy) that are as chilling as they are irresistibly funny.
Striding through all this are two performances of absolute comic authority, by Richard Wilson as the chief Tory whip, and Helen Schlesinger as his Labour counterpart.
Wilson's character has been doing this for years, is capable of selling out his grandmother without blinking, and yet actually has a moral code of sorts that gives him his confidence.
And Richard Wilson gives one of those calm and in-control performances that makes everyone else onstage look frantic and actorly - he can do more acting, and generate more laughs, just sitting in a chair than the others can mugging and rushing about.
And Helen Schlesinger plays the difficult role of a strong but feminine woman with a tightly-wound energy that makes it quietly clear that she is smarter than anyone else in the room, at least as amoral, and therefore just possibly more dangerous.
She adds immeasurably to the fun just by being the wild card that repeatedly threatens to screw up the game the others are playing so expertly.
It must be said that the rest of the cast, as directed by Terry Johnson, range from adequate downward, generally not getting in the way of the play but rarely enhancing it much. If, as seems quite likely, this fringe production transfers to the West End, some recasting couldn't hurt.
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Review of Whipping It Up - Bush Theatre 2006