Bitter by-election battles, gaffe-prone juniors, devious whips and one big game of “coalition chess” sounds more like the sober politics pages of a national broadsheet than a fun evening out, but first-time playwrights Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky remarkably manage to marry the two in their new political comedy, Coalition.
On show at the humble studio of the Pleasance in Islington, London, an artsy little venue closer to Cockfosters than Cameron, this play nevertheless manages to capture the broader picture of coalition shortcomings and parliamentary skulduggery with often alarming accuracy.
Based four years on from the hung parliament, hung more than loosely on our own shambolic cross-party covenant of 2010, the next general election is looming and the fatal embrace between Lib Dem and Tory is stretched to its limit.
The deputy prime minister Matt Cooper (comedian Thom Tuck) – more of a perpetually enraged and contorting Basil Fawlty-cum-Mark Corrigan than Nick Clegg sombrely going down with his ship – is playing what he calls “coalition chess” with No 10, but is inevitably being played all along.
Then there’s Phill Jupitus as omnipresent Tory minister Sir Francis Whitford, clearly having the time of his life camping up the role, rolling his Rs, swishing a polka dot hankie around the House of Commons, mincing in and out of offices, his monochrome brogues and red socks never far from a scene of political meltdown. He refers to the coalition as “our happy little Anschluss” and pronounces “alas” like “arse.”
Aside from these pantomime-like performances, underpinning this production is its uncanny resemblance to today’s political scene. There are defecting MPs, rumoured leadership challenges (and some real ones), Tories on "a hosepipe ban" (ie. not to be seen drinking champagne during a time of austerity), disenfranchised grassroots and occasional steadfast followers clinging on to a sense of "futile loyalty combined with a crushing sense of inner fatalism."
The main drama and comedy derives from a farcical by-election triggered in Cambridgeshire by a furious anti-nuclear Lib Dem energy secretary, having resigned in protest against sacrificing his lefty views (comprising “free porn for paedos and rights for goldfish” according to the frenzied DPM).
The seat is contested by the Lib Dems with a manic depressive alcoholic, seemingly chosen simply for his heterosexuality. “I’m a Lib Dem, it’s virtually compulsory to hug passing gays,” protests the party leader, “but they don’t do benders in East Anglia.”
Hysteria and panic ensues as the new candidate is primed for BBC Fenland by the party leadership team – Cooper’s long-suffering special adviser Claudia (Jessica Regan) being told to “shut up” and “go over there and be a camera.” “Three years at Oxford for this,” she mourns, thumbing her BlackBerry like a comfort blanket. A delectably disastrous TV debate role-play follows.
While this use of farce works well, particularly the chaotic triple-phone-line dance in the office when appeasing MPs on “defection-watch”, the characterisation is a little thin, which dampens the script’s sharpness.
There’s the tiresome trope of sighing intelligent women resigned to the incompetence of their male seniors, who, despite their masculine ineptitude, get the best comic lines and physicality. You half expect downtrodden Claudia and wry chief whip Angela (Jo Caulfield) to roll their eyes, spout “men!” contemptuously, and then quietly reform the House of Lords and introduce AV. Offstage.
With some poignant and witty lines, talented comedians and an audience eager to watch politicians humiliate themselves, this play is perfect for its time. But a lack of deeper characters and bolder political observation means that, unlike election night, it’s an amusing evening, if nothing more.