Peter Wilby - Three's company

Theatre - Sex, politics and paternity - the Spectator farce arrives on stage. By Peter Wilby


How can a magazine's two theatre critics write and stage a play cruelly lampooning not only their own editor and publisher (manager), but also two of their colleagues and, indeed, the entire publication? Worse, it draws on events that all those involved, to say nothing of their families, may well wish to forget. I refer to - what else? - a new play about the Spectator, and its extraordinary series of sexual scandals last year (most notably between its publisher Kimberly Fortier/Quinn and the then home secretary, David Blunkett), which led to its being affectionately nicknamed the Sextator.

As well as this play, there are plans for a Channel 4 film and a musical, though this last, in another scarcely plausible twist, is now in doubt because of the disappearance of its lesbian financial backer. Perhaps we shall now get a ballet produced by - oh, I don't know, a transvestite Mormon - and, given the classical education of the Spectator's editor, Boris Johnson, an epic Latin poem is inevitable.

But surely the two authors of Who's the Daddy?, Toby Young and Lloyd Evans, will be sacked? Those who think this follows understand little of small magazines. Lacking lavish budgets, they crave free publicity. Scoops help, but only a little. It is far better to make yourself the story. Here at the New Statesman - where our commitment to family values prohibits the kind of behaviour that goes on at our rival - we make the most of internal staff rows, ousted editors, proprietorial eccentricities and outrageous covers. But it's hard to beat sex, especially posh sex. The Spectator is, in reality, quite a dull magazine, full of middle-aged white men lamenting that the country has gone to the dogs. But last year's events fit its carefully cultivated image of a naughty, slightly decadent fogeys' magazine, gleefully prepared to disregard "politically correct" taste and convention. It's a clever image - any critics can be accused of humourlessness, the ultimate English metropolitan sin - which the play reinforces. Though what the magazine's island-dwelling new owners, the Barclay brothers, and their serious-minded Scotch factotum, Andrew Neil, will make of it I don't know. (Yes, I meant to write "Scotch". I can be un-PC as well. Ho, ho, ho!)

The play is very funny indeed, though it might not work so well outside the in-crowd intimacies of an Islington pub theatre. Fortier/Quinn, Petronella Wyatt and Rod Liddle are played by actors who not only resemble them, but have also studied their mannerisms and voice rhythms. Tim Hudson's untidy mop of blond hair raises laughs before he has opened his mouth. By the interval, you have almost forgotten that Paul Prescott's Blunkett isn't Blunkett himself. Saul Reichlin's vampirish Michael Howard is good, too, though the accent needs improvement. Only Michelle Ryan's Tiffany, infiltrated into a Spectator job by the Guardian, and Jot Davies's Renaldo, the magazine's gay Filipino cook, are fictitious characters. They perform the roles played, in the real-life drama, by Alicia Monckton, the Spectator receptionist for whom Liddle left his wife, and by Quinn's nanny who, like Renaldo, needed a work visa. The Blunkett-Quinn and Johnson-Wyatt liaisons go straight from real life into the play, along with the trajectories of their affairs, from seduction through infatuation to rejection.

The style is mostly good old Whitehall farce, with trousers down and people hiding in cupboards or running on-stage at embarrassing moments. There's a big picture of Margaret Thatcher in Johnson's office, which, when pulled down, turns out to be a double bed. Behind is revealed another Thatcher portrait, with handbag shielding her eyes. You laugh every time. But - and here's the taste question - almost the entire plot hinges on Blunkett's blindness and ignorance of whom he's talking to, where he is, or even whom he's having sex with. In one scene, he is the ecstatic recipient of a blow job from Renaldo, whom he thinks is Kimberly. The blind man is thus also stupid and not very sharp of hearing.

Sorry, but it seems funny when you're there. After all, nobody and nothing is spared, and even poor old Blunkett gets a few good gags. "There's an undercover journalist in the building," somebody warns. "A journalist? At the Spectator? Surely not!" says Blunkett. I'd go along with the authors when they argue that "from a moral point of view", it's "no different from an extended Spitting Image sketch". But I'm not sure they should then plead artist's force majeure - "writing must trump all other considerations" - as if they were D H Lawrence or Solzhenitsyn.

So no P45s for Young and Evans (even though, in reality, a theatre critic gets only a small weekly fee from the Spectator). Boris the editor and Boris the humorist will approve. But Boris the ambitious politician? Boris the husband? Boris the father?

Booking on 020 7226 1916 until 28 August

Next Article