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
Getty
Show Hide image

Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.