The perils of Friday night drinks

An unconvicing take on the office romance.

Tom is quite a bloke. He has never met a girl yet that he couldn't make chuck him by means of passive resistance, "like a romantic Gandhi". We gain privileged insight into this miracle of unreconstructed maleness through his asides, when we are invited to be co-conspirators in his puerile, even murderous imaginings: he tells us confidentially that he understands the mentality of the sex killer, and can "see the appeal of hacking them to pieces and putting them in bin-bags afterwards."

It's fair to say that I didn't exactly warm to the hero of My Romantic History (played by Iain Robertson), though many in the audience at the Birmingham Repetory studio theatre found the disparity between his inner voice and his public one quite hilarious. Fortunately, if belatedly, some 35 minutes into the show, we are then given access to the inner thoughts of the object of his musings, Amy from the office (Alison O'Donnell). Events are replayed from her perspective, and she proves to be every bit as unconvinced and even disgusted by the relationship as Tom. "He smells like bums" is her comment on waking up with him.

Playwright D C Moore sketches a familiar breed with the male commitment-phobe (it's Friends, by way of Peep Show out of High Fidelity), but in comparison, Amy's motivations seem both obscure and contrived. She's apparently dating him ("like fucking Americans") to prove to her co-worker that she can. But there is comedy capital to be made all the same from the unreliability of perspective: Amy recalls things in a rather different way from Tom. Speeches are attributed to different people, and the emphasis of scenes subtly shifts. Her recollection of his chat is along the lines of "blah blah blah, pretty serious about my music back then, blah". And nowhere is Tom and Amy's view more faulty and corrupted than the retrospectives on their first loves, the idealisation of which scuppers their chances of present day romance.

Nominally an office rom-com, My Romantic History doesn't, in truth, explore the office environment except to give the play an appealingly quirky setting, courtesy of designer Chloe Lamford. The office notice board gradually becomes a scrapbook collage of former loves and significant articles, like the Polaroid of a tattoo, or the manga cartoon of boyfriends past. An ancient slide projector is recommissioned to give low-tech, nostalgic presentations on the couple's love affairs, and the filing cabinet does a turn as portal to an outside world - at one point beautifully illustrating Tom's depressing ubiquity, as he appears to teleport in from various locations holding by turns coffee cup, lunch-tray and a clutch of photocopies.

Cardboard boxes are stacked to vertiginous heights; some are suspended from the ceiling, and jettison objects relating to the romantic narratives - a Magic Tree car freshener here, or a phone there. Lamford's ingenious crates suggest not only memory storage, but also a feel of pro tem making- do, and of movement between places. As the play states repeatedly, nothing lasts for ever, and it's as if Tom and Amy's relationship, by rights a throwaway and short-lived affair, has been accidentally given a lamination job and acquired a habit-hardened carapace of permanence, through motives ranging from cowardice to inertia.

Moore's office is a workless and, it must be said, joyless place, with none of the camaraderie, intimacy or shared experience that make the office such fertile ground for colleague-coupling. Amy and Tom's liaison is a purely contingent one, an anthropological likelihood based on sharing the same space. The doubling up of roles only serves to emphasise its arbitrary nature: Robertson and O'Donnell, clad in the cheap suits of junior office staff - all crackling polyester and sensible shoes - jump nimbly in and out of roles as they supply the bit parts in each other's drama. In this they are abetted by a protean Rosalind Sydney, whose main part is awful colleague Sasha, with her moon cups and her Sunday samba drumming.

But where the relationship between the lovers may be bloodless to the point of being perfunctory, under Lindsey Turner's direction the actors generate a real and unexpected warmth with a challengingly small audience. This adds considerable charm to a light-hearted memo on the ways in which we settle for each other, our partial takes on past and present, and the perils of Friday night drinks. Like a day at the office, there are lots of shared jokes, and it is a little too long.

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories