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Boris takes centre stage in a disturbing drama

Will Barton as Boris Johnson. Photograph: Pamela Raith. - Credit: Archant

MARTIN McQUILLAN finds much to amuse, and a little to fear, in a new play about the leading Brexiteer.

At the Park Theatre, in a corner of Jeremy Corbyn’s Islington North constituency, a few hundred yards from the Finsbury Park mosque where a white supremacist drove a van into worshippers, killing one and injuring many more, a remarkable piece of theatre is taking place to sold-out audiences every night.

Jonathan Maitland’s The Last Temptation of Boris Johnson is playing in what they would call an off-West End venue. The fact that it is not on the main stage at the National is a searing indictment of how theatre is funded in this country and the cultural cowardice that Brexit has given rise to in our venerable institutions.

This is a play which takes the most important issue of our day and places it centre stage. It hits more nails on the head than Bob the Builder. However, it is not a play just for a theatre audience instinctively open to the Remain cause. Anyone who has observed the human drama of the last three years will find performances to be delighted by in this comedy of vaulting ambition.

Maitland used to work in the BBC newsroom, where he knew Michael Gove and Rachel Johnson. He is a resident of the Park Theatre, where his Dead Sheep, about Geoffrey Howe’s takedown of Margaret Thatcher, and the controversial 2015 play, An Audience with Jimmy Savile, starring Alistair McGowan, broke box office records for the venue. The director, Lotte Wakeham, has recently taken over at the Bolton Octagon, where they know about staging thought-provoking drama in a potentially hostile environment.

Will Barton’s Boris is flawless, balancing between catching the intonations of a dead-ringer impersonation with projecting a bottomless narcissism. There is much to enjoy in the cast, The Fast Show’s Arabella Weir doubles between Sarah Vine of the Daily Mail and manning-up as Winston Churchill. Tim Wallers (perhaps best known for his Prince Andrew in The Windsors) is excellent as Huw Edwards and the ghost of Tony Blair.

However, the return of Steve Nallon’s Spitting Image version of Mrs Thatcher steals the show, which is saying something alongside Dugald Bruce-Lockhart’s pious and acutely rendered Michael Gove (it’s all in the hands) and Davina Moon slipping seamless between the interchangeable faces of Boris’s mistreated lovers.

The first half of the play takes place at “the dinner party, which changed history” when on February 16, 2016, having written two mutually contradictory op-eds on whether to leave or remain in the EU, Johnson was persuaded in the company of his wife Marina, Gove, Vine and the Evening Standard owner Evgeny Lebedev to side with the Leave campaign. It is the last supper before all hell breaks loose.

Like Macbeth, Johnson is haunted at dinner by ghosts. The spectres of Thatcher, Churchill and Blair take to the stage to pull him in competing directions. The second half of the play takes place on March 29, 2029, ten years after the UK was due to leave the EU. It is in this imagined future that the writing finds its feet with a series of whip-smart zingers about what might happen next in the Brexit saga. The code of critical spoilers prevents me from revealing Maitland’s best lines, but just to share one, the condescension from Boris for Dominic Raab, as “two As and a B” is beautifully observed.

I spoke to Maitland before the show had started its run. I suggested to the author that although he was ridiculing Johnson, he was also about to benefit from the unavoidable truth that Boris is box office. Maitland said that while he is fascinated with Johnson as a character, it would be wrong to believe that he is a great man.

In the play, the ghost of Churchill reminds Boris of the words of Thomas Carlyle that “history is the sum of the acts of great men”. Maitland says, “Johnson thinks he’s a great man but he’s not.”

This is not a hagiography in any way, as Maitland says, “it does not add to the myth, it punctures it.”

I asked the writer if he was drawn to the personality of Boris for the same reasons that he wrote about Savile.

“There is no similarity between Saville and Johnson,” he says, “Savile was a multiple rapist with 480 victims”. But there are reasons why Maitland is drawn to these flawed media monsters.

“Johnson is extraordinarily divisive, more divisive than Thatcher, the poster boy for the quiet fury of liberal Britain and I find it extraordinary at a time when we are most divided that we are considering having him as leader of the country.”

Maitland is adamant that he is not trying to tell people how to vote. Rather he wants to provoke and entertain. He says that while his lead actor needs to find a part of Boris that he likes, as the writer he is only required to understand the division.

For what its worth, Maitland thinks that if the Conservative leadership campaign was run tomorrow, Jeremy Hunt would come out on top as the ABB candidate (Anyone But Boris). “I think it is inevitable that we’ll leave, the question is how, but the longer it takes the softer it will get.”

As the character of Johnson says in the play, “this drama is not about me but about our great nation and where we go next”. However, Maitland’s script is all too convincing as a documentary of both the past and the future.

As we are about to contemplate frittering away the extension given to us by the EU until the end of October, with a Conservative leadership contest, I am reminded of the old Portuguese saying, there is no situation so bad that it cannot get worse.

Soon we might have Boris Johnson centre stage in our national drama. What a performance that will be.

– The Last Temptation of Boris Johnson is on at the Park Theatre, Islington until June 8th.

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