wed 16/10/2019

Kingmaker, St James Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Kingmaker, St James Theatre

Kingmaker, St James Theatre

New satire about Boris Johnson steers clear of reality

Behind closed doors: the unholy trinity of politicos (Laurence Dobiesz, Alan Cox and Joanna Bending) negotiateJeremy Abrahams

The news cycle waits for no man. When Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky’s thinly veiled Boris Johnson satire premiered in Edinburgh at the beginning of August, it seemed remarkably timely, coinciding as it did with BoJo announcing his intention to return to Parliament. Now, it’s at best reactive, and competing with a sea of far more penetrating editorials about the likelihood and reality of everyone’s favourite accident-prone chap actually running the country. Kingmaker is still atop its soapbox, but frantically and fatally jockeying for position.

Khan and Salinsky’s central argument, conveyed in a slow-drip comedy roast that sometimes forgoes comedy in favour of wild melodrama, is that Johnson’s much-admired authenticity is actually a cynically crafted shell, gaffes and pratfalls deployed with consummate skill in order to conceal cold ambition. It’s a theory unlikely to stun anyone, particularly if they happened to catch Michael Cockerell’s Boris Johnson: The Irresistible Rise on BBC2 last year.

Kingmaker, St James TheatreKingmaker poses a (now all-too-believable) future scenario: Max Newman (Alan Cox, right), popular Mayor of London turned Tory MP, is comfortable frontrunner in the leadership election and thus a few days away from claiming Number 10. In order to avoid “doing a Gordon Brown”, he’s covertly encouraged support for an unthreatening rival, naïve young gun Dan Regan (Laurence Dobiesz), a plot rumbled by Chief Whip Eleanor Hopkirk (Joanna Bending) during a tense rendezvous in an abandoned basement office. Eleanor has an alternative: force Max out of the race, and control Dan instead.

The observation that the electorate is essentially disenfranchised by such behind-the-scenes skulduggery is certainly chilling, but it’s made with greater finesse in the British House of Cards and with more style in the American version. Worse, Hannah Eidinow’s intimate production shifts gear with an audible creak as Kingmaker unwisely attempts clichéd revenge thriller, with Eleanor pulling an Inigo Montoya by dredging up family tragedy. It reduces an initially savvy female character to shrill emotional wreck and robs Max of a creditable antagonist.

Nevertheless, there’s fun to be had with Cox’s uncanny impersonation of the rumpled, roguish “teddy bear crossed with a serial killer”, landing just the right side of live-action Spitting Image. His cool demonstration of exactly how to manipulate the media shows the Machiavelli beneath the Tigger, and there are good – if not exactly startling – points here about transactional politics, insidious spin and gender double standards. Bending is at her best skewering Max’s “box of tricks”, including his patented bumbling, pivoting and “little boy lost” look, while Dobiesz brings effective peevish pique to a fairly thankless stooge role. 

All three characters could do with further development; though a few gems emerge, they’re mostly revealed via exposition-heavy monologues and reported events rather than interaction. Khan and Salinsky’s sardonic, occasionally incisive writing does suggest a talent for responding to contemporary events, and, with a swift redraft, Kingmaker could make a vital dramatic contribution to the current debate. As it is, the play merely summarises news rather than creating headlines of its own.

  • Kingmaker is at St James Theatre until 27 September
‘Kingmaker’ shifts gear with an audible creak as it unwisely attempts clichéd revenge thriller

rating

Editor Rating: 
2
Average: 2 (1 vote)

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