Whipping It Up @ Bush Theatre, London

cast list
Richard Wilson
Robert Bathurst
Helen Schlesinger
Nicholas Rowe
Lee Ross

directed by
Terry Johnson
Steve Thompson’s sharp political comedy has a lot going for it. An intriguing premise, a strong cast, a West End-quality set and some genuinely witty dialogue. Yet there’s something vital lacking at its heart that renders it merely adequate when it had the makings of a great night at the theatre.

Whipping It Up is set during Christmas 2008 and thanks to their boyish, bicycling leader, the Tories have returned to power (albeit on a majority of three). Thompson takes us inside the office of the chief whip, where loyalty is everything or so they say and power games are played 24/7. It’s a completely believable world, a feeling enhanced by a great set full of clever details, blending Westminster grandeur with an authentically shabby men’s locker room atmosphere.

The (rather knotty) plot hinges on a key vote on something called the Tentpole Bill which will prevent travellers and gypsies settling in one place for any long period. The lengths these men will go to, in order to get the vote to go in their favour, are milked for all their comic worth by Thompson who sets up some increasingly batty but worryingly believable scenarios for his characters to negotiate. All this and there’s a journalist in their midst, an undercover reporter from the Observer snuffling around for a scandal.

Richard Wilson plays the chief whip as a Victor Meldrew figure endowed with the hard edge that comes with power and years of successfully manipulating people into doing his bidding. Cold Feet’sRobert Bathurst is less blustery as his deputy, Alistair, yet no less old-school in his thinking; while the excellent Helen Schlesinger provides a frostily plausible portrait of a woman operating in an overwhelmingly testosterone driven environment, bemoaning their archaic habits yet taking pleasure in playing the boys at their own games.

The dialogue is a mixture of West Wing-y rapid-fire insider delivery filtered through a more British sensibility (think the cynicism drenched The Thick Of It with echoes of Yes, Minister). That these are all references to TV shows is telling; there’s nothing inherently theatrical about the play which never really feels at home in the Bush’s intimate space and one wonders if it wouldn’t have worked better as a one-off television play.

Director Terry Johnson paces things nicely but the comedy never reaches the frenzy of farce and its increasingly outlandish narrative twists start to undermine any serious points that Thompson may have been making about the workings of government. Still, it’s very, very funny in places particularly when Wilson is in full flow, ranting at underlings and despairing of the world in general.

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