Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre Lagging Behind

Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre Lagging Behind

Article excerpt

Tory Boyz Ambassadors, until 27 November Bryony Kimmings: Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model Soho Theatre, until 26 October Bang! The race is on. James Graham is the celebrated author of This House, a superb examination of Labour's administrative bellyflops during the 1970s, which premiered at the National last year. Some time ago, Graham was asked to update his 2008 play, Tory Boyz, about homosexuality in the Conservative party. Over the same period, the Tories have been furiously updating themselves.

Who will embrace the future first?

Graham's play is a blend of then and now. He imagines an openly gay youngster working in the Tory policy unit, and he compares his experience with Ted Heath's career in the 1950s. (That Heath was gay is taken for granted. ) But the sprint is over before it's even begun. Graham's reworked script hasn't the legs to outpace the Tory modernisers who earlier this year legalised gay marriage. This befuddles the play's purpose.

Graham attempts to dramatise the travails of his gay character by inventing a swaggering Conservative bully who humiliates his colleagues and mocks their sexuality with barrages of loathsome jibes. It's scarcely credible that such a figure could exist today, let alone escape detection. His brand of vicious bigotry would be secretly recorded and broadcast on Channel 4 in a sensational expose of rotten Tory throwbacks. Despite the play's crisp and convincing dialogue, it misses the cultural moment.

It feels dated.

The play's historical sections are hampered by the character of the ambitious young Heath. He proves intractable on stage. An intelligent, laconic, elusive and entirely humourless mummy's boy, Heath never reveals himself. Nor does the play threaten his defences or present him with choices that would force him to open up. My guess is that Graham has been bewitched by late-vintage Heath, the Incredible Sulk, who glowered like a toad on the green benches for three decades.

But Heath in his heyday was refreshing and approachable. For starters, he was called Ted, like some bloke down the pub. His signature attribute was his bonhomie. Everyone in the country could impersonate him.

You just had to roar with laughter and let your shoulders trampoline up and down.

Compared with the shifty and neurotic Wilson, he was attractive and colourful (yachtsman, maestro), and he gave the impression of being fun to be around. But in this play Heath shows no trace of psychological complexity. He's like Billy Bunter impersonating a cagey swat. …

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