TIM WALKER on the ‘unforgiveable waste of the talents’ of the actors in the one hour 20 minute show at National Theatre, London.
One would like to be able to say something nice about Simon Woods’ debut play Hansard, but I can’t for the life of me think of anything. It seems to me it’s actually an unforgiveable waste of the talents of Alex Jennings and Lindsay Duncan, one hour and 20 minutes of my time, and also, for that matter, space.
Jennings and Duncan are the only members of the cast and the whole thing is played out from start to finish in a single room, and yet it’s been accorded the vast Lyttelton stage. Maybe Woods knows someone. Certainly whoever green-lighted the script was willing to overlook a great deal.
Simon Godwin’s production starts off promisingly enough with its two cast members – he plays a stereotypical Tory MP and she’s his Guardian-reading wife – exchanging blows in their Cotswolds pile in the fag-end days of Thatcher’s premiership. They haven’t had sex since the Falklands and the last time she’d tried to cosy up to him in bed he’d assumed she had Alzheimer’s.
It goes on like that for a bit – part Noël Coward drawing room comedy, part Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with a bit of House of Cards thrown in – and then it starts to get nasty with him making jokes, for instance, about how Norman Tebbit and his wife can lay on a better lunch for friends and she’s paralysed from the neck down.
I know Norman is a controversial figure and, oh yes, sure, it’s the character speaking, but that’s just not a level to which any grown-up playwright should sink.
Jennings wears a dark suit and tie, even though it’s supposedly the weekend, and for about 90% of the show he’s the kind of knockabout Alan B’Stard Tory MP of the period that everyone loved to hate. In its own undemanding and clichéd terms, it passes muster, but then Woods must have got himself into a state about how he should end it.
Suddenly, Duncan’s character blurts out that they had a son who committed suicide and she’s good reason to feel guilty about it. The Tory MP, who had up until this point been irredeemably shallow, turns out to have unexpected depth.
I’m all for surprise endings, but the surprise has to make some kind of sense, given what precedes, it and this one makes no sense at all. What I would say to Woods is this: it’s all very well to write tired and cynical plays for the National when you are one of their established names, like David Hare or Alan Bennett, as they are allowed off-days.
A new playwright isn’t, however, allowed to start off by having an off-day. This has been a great chance squandered, and I’m afraid the theatre world is, old love, a tough and unforgiving game.