Review: A Walk on Part

Stage adaptation of Chirs Mullin's diary is visionary, worrisome and totally endearing.

A Walk on Part at the Soho Arts Theatre is adapted from the diaries of former Labour MP Chris Mullin, and tells the epic journey of New Labour, from the 1997 general election to their defeat in 2010.

As with any performance dealing heavily in politics, it runs the risk of being dry. But Michael Chaplin’s adaptation, in this case directed by Max Roberts, is fast-paced, witty and insightful, all the while managing to retain Mullin’s voice: visionary, worrisome and totally endearing.

The cast comprises of five actors, but the central figure is Mullin, played superbly by John Hodgkinson with his wonky posture, mad professor hair and clothes that don’t quite fit. His resemblance to Quentin Letts’ Mullin description is uncanny: “His trousers flap eminently around his shins, his sparse hair is unkempt, his spectacles could do with a polish, and his manner of speaking is gentlemanly. He resembles a deckchair that’s been left out all winter.” Hodgkinson narrates the plot, snapping effortlessly between monologue and dialogue and knowing Mullin’s story inside out.

The other actors multi-role between various political and media figures, the most notable being Hywel Morgan as Tony Blair, whose intonation, gesture, and facial movements give Dead Ringers’ John Culshaw a run for his money, and Joe Caffrey as Gordon Brown, complete with stoic frown and signature jaw-drop. Others are John Prescott (or “JP” to Mullin), Geoff Hoon, Claire Short, and Tony Benn. All the cast wear a hint of Labour’s red: a tie, a flash of shirt, shoes.

The stage is bare other than two rows of four chairs, accommodating the actors when they aren’t in role, and a stack of 90s television screens embedded in the back wall, which provide the dates of Mullin’s entries, bookmarking the episodes in British political history.

But their function goes further than that: when Blair enters Downing Street, his smirk and wave is reflected and multiplied in each screen; when the Guardian’s Michael White calls Mullin on the 11 September 2001 and tells him to turn on his TV, that all-too familiar image of aeroplanes crashing into the World Trade Centre silences the auditorium. 9/11 was, for so many people, beyond comprehension and even reality; we associate the event with what we saw on TV, and Roberts’ interpretation is a nod to the sensationalism of its coverage.

The TVs provide general illustration to the plot: stills of the House of Commons during PMQs, various MPs, and humorously, Steve Bell’s magnificent cartoons, namely the infamous Gordon Brown, slumped and defeated in a boxing ring after the 2010 election, and the depiction of David Cameron with a condom stretched over his head.

But their illustration does not go as far as to draw attention away from the action. Mullin’s diaries reveal an awful lot about himself and the Labour Party. He is wholly idealistic, voting against the invasion of Iraq and confronting former Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon on the targeting of civilians in Afghanistan. In such a cynical age, it is refreshing to experience an MP who is non-deferential, speaking his mind and following his heart. But even Mullin becomes pessimistic about what he can achieve as a politician: from the disillusionment as a junior minister in Prescott’s environment office, to his inability to improve the lives of Ukranian asylum seekers, to his work as Africa Minister at the Foreign Office.

We are also fed snippets of Mullin’s family life. His devotion is touching, particularly given the Westminster context of seedy affairs and marital neglect. We witness his mother’s health deteriorating and his daughters growing up, and when he finally steps down, it is for his wife.

Chaplin has tweaked Mullin’s diaries to highlight the symmetry between past events and what we know today. As soon as Labour is elected, there is the question of Rupert Murdoch and the Competition Bill - John Major goes so far as to say that Murdoch has “done such damage to this country”. Mullin is outspoken in his recognition that a life of consumerism is not sustainable for the economy nor the environment, a conviction all the more urgent as we are steeped in both financial and climate chaos. His reluctance to go into war is all the more poignant more than ten years since the invasion of Afghanistan, and when the British death toll surpassed 400 earlier this year.

A Walk On Part is an excellent dramatisation of Mullin’s revealing diaries that tell us a great deal about the political landscape of the past 15 years, captivating the audience in a world that is all too relevant today.

A Walk On Part is at the Soho Arts Theatre until 14 July

Tracy Gillman, Hywel Morgan and John Hodgkinson on stage. Image by Simon Annand
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David Blunkett compares Labour membership to failed revolution “from Ukraine to Egypt”

The Labour peer and former home secretary says new members need a “meaningful political education”, and accuses unions of neglecting their “historic balance”.

There are three sorts of opposition. There’s the civil society opposition, with people campaigning in their own specific areas, people who’ve got an interest group or are delivering social enterprise or a charity. I don’t think we should underestimate that because we're going to have to hang on to it as part of the renewal of civil society.

The second is the opposition formally, within the House of Commons: those who have agreed to serve as the formal shadow ministerial teams. Because of what I’d describe as the turmoil over the last two years, they’ve either not been able to be impressive – ie. they’re trying very hard but they don't have the coherent leadership or backing to do it – or they’ve got completely different interests to what it is they’re supposed to be doing, and therefore they’re not engaged with the main task.

Then there’s the third, which is the informal opposition – Labour linked sometimes to the Lib Dems and the SNP in Parliament on the opposition benches as a whole. They’re not doing a bad job with the informal opposition. People getting on with their work on select committees, the departmental committees beginning to shape policy that they can hopefully feed to the National Executive Committee, depending on the make-up of the National Executive Committee following this year’s conference. That embryo development of coherent policy thinking will be the seed-bed for the future.

I lived through, worked through, and was integrally involved with, what happened in the early Eighties, so I know it well. And people were in despair after the ‘83 election. Although it took us a long time to pull round, we did. It’s one reason why so many people, quite rightly in my view, don't want to repeat the split of 1931 or the split of 1981.

So they are endeavouring to stay in to argue to have some vision of a better tomorrow, and to persuade those of goodwill who have joined the party – who genuinely believe in a social movement and in extra-parliamentary non-violent activity, which I respect entirely – to persuade them that they’ll only be effective if they can link up with a functioning political process at national level, and at townhall and county level as well.

In other words, to learn the lessons of what’s happened across the world recently as well as in the past, from the Ukraine to Egypt, that if the groundswell doesn’t connect to a functioning party leadership, then, with the best will in the world, it’s not going to achieve its overall goals.

How do we engage with meaningful political education within the broader Labour party and trade union movement, with the substantially increased rank-and-file membership, without being patronising – and without setting up an alternative to Momentum, which would allow Momentum to justify its existence as a party within a party?

That's the challenge of the next two years. It's not just about someone with a vision, who’s charismatic, has leadership qualities, coming forward, that in itself won’t resolve the challenge because this isn't primarily, exclusively about Jeremy Corbyn. This is about the project being entirely on the wrong trajectory.

A lot depends on what the trade unions do. They command effectively the majority on the National Executive Committee. They command the key votes at party conference. And they command the message and resources that go out on the policy or programmes. It’s not just down to personality and who wins the General Secretary of Unite; it’s what the other unions are doing to actually provide their historic balance, because they always have – until now – provided a ballast, foundation, for the Labour party, through thick and thin. And over the last two years, that historic role has diminished considerably, and they seem to just be drifting.

I don’t think anybody should expect there to be a party leadership challenge any time soon. It may be that Jeremy Corbyn might be persuaded at some point to stand down. I was against the challenge against him last year anyway, purely because there wasn't a prepared candidate, there wasn't a policy platform, and there hadn’t been a recruitment drive to back it up.

People shouldn’t expect there to be some sort of white charger out there who will bring an immediate and quick end to the pain we’re going through. I think it’s going to be a readjustment, with people coming to conclusions in the next two years that might lead the party to be in a position to fight a credible general election in 2020. I’ve every intention of laying down some good red wine and still being alive to drink it when the Labour party is elected back to power.

David Blunkett is a Labour peer and former home secretary and education secretary.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition