Review by Daz Gale
As we head to another general election, approximately 27 Prime Ministers since the last one, another tumultuous election year is the subject of this play as 1979 gets its European premiere at Finborough Theatre – a theatre that prides itself in not presenting work that has been seen in London in the last 25 years with more Canadian plays than any other theatre in Europe, so it feels fitting that this is the chosen location for this play about the Prime Minister of Canada.
1979 shines a light on Conservative party politics, focusing on Canada’s youngest ever Prime Minister Joe Clark being elected in, you guessed it, 1979. What should have been the beginning of a new era in Canada was over before it had even begun – at one point Joe is compared to Margaret Thatcher, who was also elected Prime Minister in the same year, though the truth is his legacy is closer to that of Liz Truss – the shortest ever British Prime Minister who failed to last as long as a lettuce.
Written by Michael Healey, this one-act play whizzes us through Joe Clark’s all-too-short reign in a fast-paced 80 minutes. With all of the action taking place in the Prime Minister’s Office in Ottawa, the presence of the Prime Minister is constant as he is met with a revolving door of family, friends, and colleagues. Healey’s writing is a joy to behold, full of wit and flair, and doing a good job of captivating attention consistently. A prolonged and impassioned speech from a young future Prime Minister Stephen Harper does prove a bit more inconsistent with its high points failing to maintain throughout the entire scene. The play does veer off slightly towards the end – though still highly enjoyable, there is the sense it peaks too soon.
Jimmy Walters’ direction makes full use of the gorgeously intimate space, with characters circling the office and making grand entrances, exits, and gestures through some inspired choices. Mim Houghton’s rustic design effortlessly transports you into the Prime Minister’s office with great use of lighting from Mark Dymock. Laura Alyousif’s sound design allows for some playful moments with an unexpected but integral use of music, deliberately loud to comic effect.
One surprising choice, which may prove divisive, is the use of a screen to display text throughout the play. While this is necessary to an extent to help explain who all of the people mentioned are to anyone who isn’t familiar with Canadian politics (such as yours truly), it can feel a little excessive at times, making it hard to keep up with the action and pay attention to what the actors are saying while taking all of the information in. After an initial onslaught of text, this becomes a bit more tongue-in-cheek, breaking the fourth wall by telling the audience they didn’t come here to read and taking on a more conversational tone, almost becoming a character in its own right. A fun choice, to an extent, and I left knowing a lot more about politics in Canada than I ever expected.
The appropriately named Joseph May takes on the role of Joe Clark in the main character who rarely leaves the stage for the duration of the play, in a demanding role. Tapping into the character completely, Joseph plays a deliberately understated performance which allows bigger personalities to dominate. In a testament to his own abilities as an actor, the fact he still manages to retain a commanding nature, despite this mild-mannered characterisation, ensures a fantastic and well-rounded character performance.
Samantha Coughlan and Ian Porter take on the remainder of the characters in a gender-blind performance that sees them appear and disappear in a variety of weird and wonderful characters. Samantha delights in roles including Joe’s wife Maureen McTeer, political rival Brian Mulroney, and a truly impressive turn as Stephen Harper. It’s Ian Porter who gets the most memorable performances of the play from his larger-than-life first appearance as the foul-mouthed and highly stressed John Crosbie to an absolute stcene-stealing performance as Joe’s predecessor (and, spoiler alert, successor) Pierre Trudeau. While all three actors delivered great performances in their own right, it’s Ian’s scene-stealing turn as Pierre that is the undoubted standout with his knack for comic timing and charismatic nature setting the bar impossibly high.
If an election in Canada 45 years ago doesn’t sound like the most riveting thing to witness, 1979 may surprise you. You don’t need to have a knowledge or interest in the subject to take something out of this show, which is multi-layered in its approach, leading to an exposition that speaks more of humanity than politics (as we all know politicians sometimes lack this trait). While not perfect, its wonderful writing and incredible performances from a hard-working cast of three have led to another triumph from the consistently fantastic wonderful Finborough Theatre in a production that should enjoy a longer life than Joe Clark’s time as Prime Minister.
1979 plays at Finborough Theatre until 27th January. Tickets from www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk
Photos by Simon Annand