A two-plus hour monologue adapted fairly verbatim from the diaries of a backbench Labour MP might not have the most immediate appeal for many, especially not for a thoroughly unpolitical non-Brit like me. Lucky, then, that there’s so much to like here beyond the rather dry premise.
To start with, monologue is a bit of a misnomer – while the play certainly revolves around the near-constant stream of quickfire anecdotes delivered by Chris Mullin (as portrayed by John Hodgkinson, who has impressively memorised a script about the length of a short novel), he plays off the other four actors throughout, each rotating energetically through a supporting cast of more than 60 politicans, friends and Mullin family members.
Much of the comedy arises from these impressions, the most frequent being Hywel Morgan’s Tony Blair and Joe Caffrey’s John Prescott, though it’s Hodgkinson’s endlessly amiable performance that brings an infectious likeability to his reminiscences (which cover election year 1997 right through 2010). The script plays winkingly with what-we-thought-then-versus-what-we-know-now, as when Cherie Blair announces that her husband is an idealist, who’ll no doubt be diving headfirst into teaching in Africa as soon as he’s out of office.
The subtitle of A Walk On Part is The Fall of New Labour, though any retrospective of those years will inevitably have that aspect of tragedy, of the slow erosion of ideals. In spite of my endless ignorance, certain events over the past decade and a half – the Iraq war, for example – didn’t quite manage to pass me by, and its devastating effect on the Labour government is not glossed over. Mullin himself voted against the invasion, an act that essentially resulted in him being booted down from his ministerial post back into obscurity.
This is posited as something of an act of conscience on his part, as are several scenes where he finds himself moved by the plights of asylum seekers. This inevitably rings a little self-serving at times, as does his charmingly dishevelled demeanour, which clearly intends to invite sympathy for him. In fairness, given our hard-entrenched cynicism towards politicians, a touch of carefully-constructed relatability might be the only way a writer can break through our instinctual dislike. At the very least, it’s hard to argue with his modest goal to achieve something – anything – for the better while he’s in office, which turns out to be more difficult than he might have expected.
The chronology skips seamlessly between scenes months apart, our only anchor being an updating date on a monitor at the back of the stage (presumably it’s someones entire job to sit through the play every night and click through to the next date when the actors get to that point in the script, which seems like a heck of a career to get into). Sometimes these scenes last as long as a full conversation, more often it’s a fragment, even a single line, as Mullin shuffles between Westminster, Africa and his own constituency in Sunderland.
A Walk On Part is an entertaining insider’s view, superbly acted and pleasantly light-hearted. It’s just transferred to the Arts Theatre in the West End from the Soho Theatre, a testament to its growing reputation and a great opportunity to catch a thoroughly enjoyable evening.
Performed at the Arts Theatre until the 14th July.