KINGMAKER – Arts Theatre, London.
With the general election at the forefront of the nation’s mind, this London outing of last year’s Edinburgh Fringe success Kingmaker is obviously well timed. Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky’s play explores the machinations of party and personal politics as Eleanor Hopkirk MP pits two prime-ministerial candidates against each other to suit her own ends.
Max Newman MP is a thinly veiled parody of incumbent Mayor of London Boris Johnson, and Dan Regan MP is the young pretender to the throne. With reputation, career and money at stake the men pit their age and experience against each other in the last moments before their fictional election battle.
This in itself is an interesting situation. In the first half of the play, Khan and Salinsky explore this power struggle with witty and intelligent dialogue. The play treads a beautifully fine line between its imaginary world and biting commentary on modern British politics. The first thirty minutes is a focussed dialogue that is snappy, intense and frequently very funny. However, in its attempt to imbue proceedings with a stronger dramatic narrative the second half of the play gets bogged down with the introduction of a dubious and potentially apocryphal murder accusation.
Despite its good intentions the addition of this plot point begins to undermine the absorbing communication between the three characters that has gone before. It threatens to turn the evening from an insightful exploration of contemporary politics into a Westminster-set soap opera. As the play runs at only an hour it seems a shame that its authors didn’t trust their own creations to keep the audience’s attention with character-driven political discourse.
There is still a lot for the audience to engage with, as the three MPs are brought to life by a strong cast. Joanna Bending as Eleanor gets things off to a winning start, delivering a monologue in which her sultry tones seduce the audience, just as they will her two colleagues. Bending prowls the stage and gives a performance of mysterious sincerity. As the younger candidate, Laurence Dobiesz plays Dan with a rabbit-in-the-headlights approach. He has a strength of voice that almost overcomes his baby face and ill-fitting suit. In this sense, Dobiesz is very well cast and captures Dan’s latent innocence while clearly demonstrating how it will soon become his most powerful weapon.
The evening really belongs to Alan Cox, however, who plays Johnson-esque Max Newman with reptilian precision. From the moment he bursts onto stage it is impossible not to be drawn in by each hair tousle, bent knee and awkwardly clutched hand. Cox gives Newman an inherent gravitas that gradually gets beaten down, his strident convictions working against his increasingly confused utterances.
The trio are all impressive, but Cox is the man of the moment. To the cast’s credit, they all give performances worthy of much bigger spaces, which allows them to blur some of director Hannah Eidinow’s less inventive decisions. With the audience on three sides of the stage it’s not unusual for the actors to end up on opposing corners, before doing a rotation. It becomes repetitive and echoes a lack of bravery that is inherent in the text.
The play is interesting, well performed and relevant, but does it satisfy an audience looking for a real exploration of this country’s present political position? Hard to say.
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By Robert Pearce
4th – 23rd May 2015
Arts Theatre, London, WC2H 7JB.