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
Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder