Review: Tory Boyz
James Graham, 31, Britain’s newest political playwright, has the remarkable ability to write brilliant plays about the most obscure, uninviting subjects. His recent National Theatre hit This House covered the 1970s’ hung parliament, its protagonists mainly comprising curmudgeonly old stoats from the whips’ offices.
Tory Boyz, which Graham wrote in 2008 but has now revived for a run by the National Youth Theatre at the Ambassadors Theatre, is equally as incongruous for modern theatre-goers. Its focal subject is being gay in the Tory Party – not even MPs, just parliamentary researchers, and their struggle to figure out whether Ted Heath played that way.
Although it’s not quite as richly accomplished a piece as This House, Graham’s now five-year-old work delivers laughter and intrigue in equal measure, capturing the agony and ecstasy experienced by the backroom boys of UK politics.
The action is set in an office – which occasionally makes the action too sedentary for too long – of staffers to a Tory education minister, who are frantically trying to find new jobs between meetings with teaching unions (“If you can, do; if you’re a cock, teach”) and quipping about the shambles of modern politics, including a memorable comparison of coalition with foreplay, and complaining about their perpetually offstage boss.
The sweary joshing of chief-of-staff Nicholas, played by a swaggering Sope Dirisu, with conscientious, quietly ambitious, and gay, Sam (a beautifully anguished Simon Lennon), soon becomes sinister and is the backdrop for an identity crisis – both political and sexual – of the conflicted protagonist.
Sam delves into parliament’s history, attempting to discover whether mysterious lone ranger Heath had been Britain’s first gay prime minister.
This leads to flashbacks of Heath’s childhood – such a “terribly serious boy” – silently tormented by concerned women hovering on all sides, and his pre-Downing Street days in the whips’ office, constantly interrogated by sneering colleagues about his weekend activities. He’s played by a subtly stewing Niall McNamee.
This action cuts back to the modern-day Westminster office, and swaps between this and enjoyable classroom antics as Sam attempts to do focus group-style research by teaching some pleasingly irreverent pupils in a school each week. Big gay anthems blast through scene changes – Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Mika – picking up the pace that occasionally lags with the often politics-heavy dialogue. However, lines like, “Give a Tory a croissant in one hand and a copy of Attitude in the other,” skewering the Conservative Party’s eternal neuroses – Europe and gays – make this worth it.
Graham, who did extensive interviews with peers and former whips for his most recent political production, had clearly also done his research here, with references to MI5 documents citing Soviet gay honey-traps contrived to capture Heath, and his depiction of hassled and bombastic young aides bears quite an alarming resemblance to reality.
Disappointingly, the female characters were written rather thinly. One of whom, played valiantly by Louisa Beadel, was simply marriage-hungry and awaiting Heath’s proposal that never came, and another from the modern day, a secretary, told us she realised her Tory leanings when doing the washing up and that “blue brings out my eyes”.
What would Thatcher have thought?