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1979, Finborough Theatre review - niche subject matter finds a strong resonance | reviews, news & interviews

1979, Finborough Theatre review - niche subject matter finds a strong resonance

1979, Finborough Theatre review - niche subject matter finds a strong resonance

There's fun and profundity in the thick of Ottawa's political class's Machiavellian manoeuvrings

Ian Porter and Joseph May in 1979 - massaging or strangling ambition?Simon Annand

If a week is a long time in politics, what price 44 years? And 3500 miles? Turns out, not much, as Michael Healey’s sparkling play, 1979, proves that events all that time ago and all that way across the Atlantic maintain a remarkable relevance today.

We open on a besieged prime minister, Joe Clark, being harangued by his finance minister, John Crosbie, who has Malcolm Tucker’s lexicon on his lips and a budget to force through a hung Parliament. Lose the vote and Clark’s fragile minority government will fall; postpone the vote and his credibility (not least in his own mind) will plummet; win the vote and… well that’s not going to happen is it?There would be a lot of exposition required for a Canadian audience (the play premiered in Calgary in 2017) and even more for a London house, but a series of back-projected Brechtian slides introducing characters and providing context do the job with surprisingly little intrusion. It also helps that the script and the acting, often exaggerated but never quite caricatured, swiftly establish who’s who and lead us into believing that politicians are much the same, any time, any place, anywhere.

Joseph May’s Joe Clark (pictured above with Samantha Coughlan) is the fixed point in this whirlwind of grotesquerie. In his beautifully observed brown corduroy suit (there’s super work throughout by designer, Mim Houghton), he’s a decent man, not so much out of his depth as lost in a snake pit of vipers. In many ways the play is a love letter to him and an elegy for the kind of principled politics to which he clung, inevitably unsuccessfully. It’s impossible not to be reminded of contemporary figures as the play unfolds, and one can’t help but think that had Rory Stewart succeeded in his 2019 bid to lead the Conservative Party, this is exactly how things would have turned out.

Ian Porter and Samantha Coughlan deliver all the other roles, Porter at his best as Pierre Trudeau, the once and future prince, an alpha-male to end all alpha-males, who delivers a harsh lesson in the power of performative politicking. 

Coughlan manages to skip between very different characters. As a sexy Maureen McTeer, Clark’s wife and much more than a First Lady, she tells a superb story about the Queen Mother leading to a tremendous joke. Later she plays a very young Stephen Harper. 

Not heard of him? Neither had I, but a frisson running through the audience suggested some had. He’s the Steve Bannon / Dominic Cummings figure, the Machivellian power-broker who sees the long game, plays it and wins. Coughlan’s tour-de-force speech analysing the weaknesses of consensus politics and heralding the bitter divisions of today, is electrifying in its ruthlessness. (As an aside, I must contend that it was not so much Mrs Thatcher’s genius that kept her first government afloat, but a combination of a ferocious press, a divided opposition and, especially, a war in the South Atlantic).

As is so often the case, the Finborough Theatre has turned up a gem, a funny, clever and illuminating production, exactly what fringe theatre should be. Not only that, it fizzes for 80 minutes and no more, saying what it wants to say and leaving us to draw our own conclusions. Canada is in great danger of losing its reputation for being boring, not to mention decent - and I could hardly be more pleased!   

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