Political Power Plays

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Byline: MICHAEL COVENEY

Feelgood (Hampstead Theatre) Verdict: New Labour spins farcically into new comedy ****

The Secret Rapture (Salisbury Playhouse) Verdict: Hare's threnody for Thatcherism still hits the mark ***

POLITICS are on parade this week, with a sharp, satirical look at New Labour in the Hampstead heartlands and, in Salisbury, a reprise for love in the cold climate of Thatcherism.

Feelgood by Alistair Beaton is a funny, sinister political comedy whose leading character, Eddie, bears a weird resemblance to Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's press secretary.

Henry Goodman plays Eddie as a self-obsessed spider at the centre of a web of intrigue in a seaside hotel suite during the Party conference.

Physically, Goodman's Eddie is not burly or surly, like Campbell, but a nimble, highly strung barrow boy, swivelling at the knees and snapping at frailer bodies like a piranha.

The keynote speech must be written for 'Diddums' (the PM) while a Carnival Against Capitalism creates a backdrop of mayhem.

And a major scandal is emerging.

Eddie's ex-wife Liz, a journalist who lost her job at The Guardian - she hit the bottle, the drugs and the editor - is on to a story involving one of the PM's crony chums.

This hapless Life Peer, played with wonderful deadpan by Nigel Planer as a cadaver with floppy hair and slow limbs, reveals that genetically modified beer (grown from hops on his family estate) is producing a strange side-effect on male drinkers all over Europe - they are growing large breasts.

Understandably, this drives Eddie into a dance of rage, and he explodes like a maniac before moving down the hotel corridor to confront his ex-wife (Sian Thomas).

We recover comic equilibrium with a return to the seat of power, unpredictable mobile phones and the ingratiating search for phrases about a job culture, not a yob culture.

FINALLY, the PM, or DL - the initials stand for Divine Light, or Dodgy Leader, or Dreadfully Lightweight - speaks from the podium in a distorted echo of Tony Blair's real Party conference speech last year.

Nigel Cooke, cleverly reproducing Blair's body language without direct imitation, announces that Liz, who has died in an arson attack on the hotel, will not be forgotten. She had, in fact, already been bought, and DL veers off into a rabid tirade.

Beaton has taken his play into the realms of vicious satirical fantasy, and I must say I was amazed, though I shouldn't have been; this writer knows, and has translated, his Gogol.

Max Stafford-Clark's compelling production is brilliantly cast, with cleverly inflected performances all round - including Amita Dhiri as the PM's PA that suggest a backroom political milieu rife with intrigue, nastiness and vicious hypocrisy.

* MEANWHILE, in the cathedral city calm of Salisbury, Joanna Read has directed a smart, brittle revival of David Hare's The Secret Rapture, first seen at the National in 1988.

Hare's characteristic stridency - not always the fault some critics believe it is - is given full reign by Helene Kvale as Marion French, a blistering junior minister in the Conservative government. She and her sister Isobel, who runs a small design business, have returned home for their father's funeral.

Marion's husband, Tom (Simon Coury), is head of Christians In Business, and they take over Isobel's firm, along with Dad's alcoholic young widow (Louise Yates). …