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8 March 2023

Dom: The Play is nowhere near as clever as it thinks it is

This twee, smug, lowest-common-denominator political satire is not just bad: it’s mindless.

By John Maier

Dom: The Play, performing now at the Other Palace Theatre in central London, tells the story of the political career of Dominic Cummings: the decade or so that saw him move from being Michael Gove’s special adviser, to director of Vote Leave, and finally as Boris Johnson’s chief adviser in No 10. It is a curiously vindicatory depiction of the man, at times almost uncritical. Some have even speculated the disrupter-in-chief may have had an uncredited hand in authoring it. I hope for Cummings’s sake that he did not. Dom would be the laziest excuse for a short-sighted and ill-justified Cummings outing since the last one he came up with.

Dom reproduces the most sensational version of the popular fantasy of Cummings as a kind of data-driven strategic savant: a political Sherlock continually thwarted by the slow-moving drones around him; a fugitive genius forced to descend, like Plato’s philosopher kings, back to the squalid cave of political life to illuminate our problems for us. Still, it remains a play of oddly confused loyalties. This is, I think, because the readiness with which political genius is imputed to Cummings is often better explained by the wounded vanity of his opponents than the soundness of his vision. “If able to outmanoeuvre us when it really counted,” his enemies reason grudgingly, “then there’s no denying he must be some kind of genius.” A consoling thought, but a doubtful one.  

Colluding in this mutual compliment, a rather too insouciant and streetwise Chris Porter swaggers on to stage as Cummings, and indulges the audience’s masochistic desire to be put in their place. There is some gruff talk about prime numbers and quantum energy states, all lifted from Cummings’s real-life, and rather bizarre, blog. The audience is suitably awed. “That’s me: the genius, the magician, the maverick,” the script quite literally reminds us. It is at times like being in the presence of a potentially clever undergraduate: someone alert, overinformed, but not quite able to synthesise all the material they wish to deploy in proof of their intelligence. Then, spoiling the effect a little, a member of the audience is pronounced to be the “second-most intelligent person in the room” after being able to identify a description of Jeffrey Archer. One begins to fear there might be a slightly unstable intellectual standard in play. Later on, Dom admits humbly to being nothing more than “a man of average abilities in an age of mediocrities”. That this is obviously intended to be a passable bon mot, and not a strange and infelicitous redundancy is of course part of the play’s problem.  

[See also: Rishi Sunak needs to learn from Keir Starmer’s ruthlessness]

If you, or someone you know, have been in a coma since about 2016, watching Dom might be of some use. Cleaving closely to the news cycle, it skims the headlines of the post-referendum years. The lampoon is paper-thin and risk-free, an exercise in identifying the lowest common denominator of political allegiance in the room and coming up with the least creative joke about it. (“Isn’t Boris Johnson stupid? Doesn’t he probably have lots of children! Wasn’t Theresa May rather physically awkward?”) A supporting cast provides a series of quick-fire cameo impressions (Nicola Sturgeon, Tony Blair, John Prescott) preceded helpfully – and often indispensably – with a quick instruction of who is about to be impersonated.  

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The mood is one of uncoordinated, unprincipled archness about political life. As when witnessing certain kinds of botched political stunt, one is forced to reach a judgement: am I watching something calculatingly cynical or just plain stupid? It is no small irony that the play unintentionally mimics the vices of political life that it seeks to criticise. Taking its satire to be deep, it is in fact superficial; thinking its global cynicism a moral corrective, it is frivolous and undiscriminating; taking no prisoners, it leaves everything where it was. And all the while, from the audience, came the pleasured grunts and tuts of recognition with which they signalled delightedly to each other that they remembered some major news story from six months ago. Truly, if there was anything worse than the play itself it was the audience who would volunteer to watch it.

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Dom is not just bad, but curiously ill-at-ease with itself. There is something perverse about a play that claims to take seriously the Cummings-style thesis that our conventional assumptions about political life are too impoverished and unimaginative, and then proceeds to engage this theme by perpetrating a rote and mindless political satire. This twee, self-satisfied play is an essential feature of the political culture that it simultaneously encourages us to think Cummings is right to disdain.  

“Dom: The Play” is on at the Other Palace Theatre until 8 March.

[See also: “Sylvia” at the Old Vic review]

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