Whipping It Up, a CurtainUp London review CurtainUp

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A CurtainUp London London Review
Whipping It Up

A Second Look at Whipping It Up
Happiness is the sight of one's constituency. . .disappearing in the rear view mirror!
---- Alastair

Whipping It Up
Kellie Bright as Maggie and Robert Bathhurst as Alastair
(Photo: Robert Day)
Steve Thompson's political comedy transfers to the gilded intimacies of the New Ambassadors theatre, which suit it rather well. Whipping It Up comes on like a farce but its real intention is to shock us by revealing the full horror of macho politics. It shows us the inside of one of the most exclusive boys' clubs in existence — the Tory Whip's Office in Westminster. Despite its air of charm and tradition this place is a shark pool looking like a prayer meeting, as the set (by Tim Shorthall) lovingly conveys.

But unless the visitor has a more than nodding acquaintance with the British parliamentary system, the main reasons for seeing this play are the performances of its stars, Richard Wilson and Robert Bathurst. Wilson is a performer of legendary stature. Though readily pigeon-holed as a master of comedy, his talents are far richer. The man can put more dramatic weight into a turn of the head than you might see in an entire performance of Hamlet. He lends dignity, style and caustic wit to the proceedings as the old school, Tory switchblade hoodlum, deftly avoiding the long shadow cast by the late Ian Richardson's iconic portrait of an earlier Tory Whip, the ineffable Francis Urqhart of BBC TV's House of Cards.

Robert Bathurst as his number two, Alastair, has patented his own superior brand of suave ruthlessness, although his better scenes are with one of the token women allowed into this strange world. His exchanges with his Labour opposite number (Helen Schlesinger) are rich with suppressed eroticism as well as point scoring of a more constitutional kind.

The audience loved the gags, but some of the tension of the piece does falter in the second act. An American viewer might find the machinations of these people disarmingly innocent and amateurish. Indeed, Thompson himself seems to feel some admiration for his creations. What is the only principle every politician believes in? he asks. And the answer is: "Winning!" These monsters may be breaking every rule in the book, but at least they're playing the game.

Written by Steve Thompson
Directed by Tamara Harvey
Original production directed by Terry Johnson
Starring: Richard Wilson, Robert Bathhurst, Helen Schlesinger
With: Nicholas Rowe, Lee Ross, Kellie Bright
Design: Tim Shortall
Lighting: Simon Corder
Sound: Fergus O'Hare
Running time: Two hours with one interval
Box Office: 0870 060 6627
Booking to 28th April 2007
Reviewed by Brian Clover based on 5th March 2007 performance at the New Ambassadors, West Street, London WC2 (Tube: Leicester Square)

The Original Review by Lizzie Loveridge

Don't push it. I've had six months of you bastards; calling a vote on my birthday; calling a vote when my period is due.— Delia
Whipping It Up
Lee Ross as Tim and Richard Wilson as the Chief Whip
(Photo: Robert Day)
Whipping It Up is a delightful political comedy set in the Houses of Parliament. Writer Steve Thompson has been writer in residence at the Bush Theatre and this play is the result. Full of darkly comic one liners and directed by Terry Johnson, this must be high on the list of a likely transfer to a larger theatre.

It is just before Christmas in 2008 and the Conservative government have a slender majority of just three. That means that every vote in the chamber could lead to a loss with a subsequent vote of no confidence in the government or a call for the party leader to be replaced. The Whips Office has the job of getting the vote to turn out, organising pairing off with the opposition for those unable to show and emphasising the need for party loyalty from those wavering as to who they must vote for. The critical vote is on a bill to place a tax on trailers, tents and awnings which stay up for more than eight weeks and it has the boy scouts of England in an unlikely pairing with Traveller communities mounting a protest in Parliament Square.

The Whips Office has a staff of three, the Chief Whip (Richard Wilson) a hardened Tory of the old school with a brilliantly caustic turn of phrase who defines his role, "Whipping! Stare them straight in the eyes and demand the bastards comply!" He has a battery of such wonderful metaphors we can see what persuaded Richard Wilson to play the role. Then there's his deputy Alastair (Robert Bathurst), tall, handsome, thoroughly British, capable of great charm but with a python's instinct for the jugular. The new boy is Tim (Lee Ross) son of Tory benefactor and rather lower class in Conservative Party terms with the dubious morality of a market trader. Helen Schlesinger is maybe the ballsiest as the Labour Party's Whip, the formidable Delia who organises the Opposition.

The plot is quite intricate and in some ways the only weakness of Whipping It Up! I feel Thompson's stellar wit deserves a perfect frame. Interfering with the Tory majority are a back bench revolt, a woman journalist Maggie (Fiona Glascott) posing as a pretty political researcher who wants to dig out a scandal to sell papers, Delia's counter-skulduggery and the Tory leader's delay on his flight back from Washington.

The set is detailed. Commenting on the new occupants, Delia regrets the loss of her colour co-ordinated office accessories (she was the previous occupant). She describes it under Tory rule as a public school boy's dorm and she wonders where the boys have hidden the pornography! There is a large safe in which it is said that the whips store the most incriminating and sordidly persuasive materials with which to make sure a member votes for his party.

The performances are perfect. Bathurst as Alastair has a difficult first act with lots of interrupted dialogue which needs to flow and to allow the audience to laugh so his timing is all, and he is superb. I liked too Nicholas Rowe's rookie Member of Parliament, anxious to advance and yet retaining some principle. As Delia, in a role of the type I haven't seen her play before, Schlesinger excels and is a match for Alastair's war of obfuscation and accusations of witchcraft but it is Richard Wilson's sardonic, foul mouthed humour which steals the show. His voice manages to whine in the higher registers in a supercilious way and he has mastered the Tory drawl. His delivery is so good that if I were a BBC producer I would already be signing up Steve Thomson to write the television comedy series with the condition that Wilson joins the party.

Written by Steve Thompson
Directed by Terry Johnson

Starring: Richard Wilson, Robert Bathurst, Helen Schlesinger
With: Lee Ross, Fiona Glascott, Nicholas Rowe
Design: Tim Shortall
Lighting: Simon Corder
Sound: Fergus O'Hare
Running time: Two hours with one interval
Box Office: 020 7610 4224
Booking to 16th December 2006--extended to 23rd December
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 11th November 2006 performance at the Bush Theatre, Shepherd's Bush Green, London W6 (Tube: Shepherd's Bush)
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