The day after the general election, I set out for a Scottish literary festival where, at dinner, a well-known writer told me that he attributed the result, at least at his end of the country, to the behaviour of crowds. I nodded sagely and swallowed another comforting mouthful of red. Though I didn’t absolutely agree, it was a remark that chimed pretty loudly, mainly because I was still struggling to get to grips with The Vote (7 May, 8.28pm), the play that Channel 4 broadcast live on election night from the Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden. Talk about the behaviour of crowds!
The newspaper theatre critics had already informed me of this production’s amazing warmth and wisdom and so, too, had several friends. From what I could tell, the theatre audience on the night also seemed to have enjoyed it, hooting wildly at every “joke”, however laboured, however unfunny. But alone on my sofa, I was unmoved. I smiled rarely and laughed not at all. What a feast of platitudes and clichés. It was boring beyond all endurance while it lasted and the tedium only seemed to grow in the memory after 10pm, when the real drama began. For thrills, I would take that exit poll over Judi Dench and Jude Law any day of the week.
Devised by James Graham (Coalition, This House) and Josie Rourke, the Donmar’s artistic director, The Vote was set in a polling station where the determination of a moderately neurotic trio of council officials (played by Mark Gatiss, Catherine Tate and Nina Sosanya) to get their ballot box to the town hall on time was slowly undermined over the course of 90 minutes by the antics of a long string of voters – most notably an elderly chap (Timothy West) who appeared somehow to have voted twice. Yes, this was in essence a farce, though thanks to an unusually cartoonish performance from Tate and the sheer preposterousness of much of the writing, it was more Ray Cooney than Oliver Goldsmith. If someone had lost their trousers as well as their ballot paper, I would not have been at all surprised.
The play was also a crazed exercise in box-ticking. Old voters, young voters, gay voters, disabled voters: here they came, one after the other. No one was left out, not even the kind of braying City types who wear signet rings and inevitably vote Tory, and nor did anyone escape without being on the receiving end of a kind of gentle, PC stereotyping. The polling station officer (Gatiss) and his co-workers were uncertain of West’s character’s politics (they needed to know so that they might somehow cancel out his vote later, what with this being – ha! – such a desperately close election). But mostly it seemed that we were being invited to go along with the old lie that it’s possible to tell how a person votes in little more than a glance. If this felt pat at the time, it had shaded into arrogance by the small hours, when it became apparent that, in the real world, so many voters had defied the patronising expectations of the political class.
It’s amazing to me that in our jaded celebrity culture star cameos can still have such a loopy effect on audiences. Is it gratitude that has them applauding wildly when a famous actor (Jude Law) turns up to shout a single line? Why do they find it so thrilling to hear a theatrical dame (Judi Dench) utter the F-word? Either way, when they are in the presence of a big name who has humbly taken his or her place in an unwieldy ensemble, something alarming happens to people’s critical impulses: they turn to mush.
I couldn’t help but notice, in the hours that followed, that the more riveting performances by far came from our politicians and their various groupies – particularly those on the left, who insisted for rather longer than was wise that the exit polls had been wrong. These turns, blustering and somewhat hammy, were no more convincing, at bottom, than those I’d seen in The Vote, but the desperation involved, not to mention the chutzpah, gave them a queasy import that was little short of mesmerising.
The 90 minutes of The Vote passed far too slowly, with every ad break coming as a welcome relief. The hours between 10pm and 3am, however, passed in a sticky-palmed flash, no interval required.