Election drama plays out on stage

By Tim Masters
Entertainment correspondent, BBC News

Image caption,
The Westminster comedy is based around an expenses scandal

The dramatic events of the recent General Election have helped shape two new plays that open this week.

As pieces of theatre, they take a markedly different approach to the subject.

Swing - billed as the first full-length theatrical response to the election - is an improvised drama set at a London house party on election night.

No Expense Spared is a traditional Westminster comedy with a dash of farce. It is being staged just a short walk from Whitehall.

"It's like a posh Carry On," says actress Lysette Anthony, who plays the dizzy wife of a junior minister in a coalition government.

These aren't the only plays around with a political flavour.

During last month's election campaign, Laura Wade's Posh opened at the Royal Court. The play is about an elite Oxford dining society - a thinly-disguised Bullingdon Club (former member: David Cameron).

And on at Chichester is a stage version of TV comedy Yes, Prime Minister - updated to take in a coalition government.

Goldfish bowl

Image caption,
Joe McGann and Lysette Anthony play the MP and his wife in No Expense Spared

"I wanted to write a Westminster goldfish bowl comedy as I think all human life is there," says Richard Stirling, who penned No Expense Spared.

"I was always interested in the power behind the throne, the MPs' wives - some of them are remarkably glamorous. I rather like the characters, I don't think of them as being hate figures."

Stirling admits to being something of an election anorak - even in childhood.

"As a kid I used to have the map from the newspaper and I used to colour in assiduously all the bits that were turning blue or red - it's so tragic," he says.

The playwright admits he's had "a telephone call" to ask if a certain politician was being name-checked in his comedy.

Stirling adds mischievously: "I have to confess, I'd never actually heard of them but I didn't want to crush his or her vanity."

Actor Joe McGann, who plays the junior minister, describes his character as "a well-meaning buffoon".

"He could be one of 25 or 30 people in parliament at the moment," he says.

"What you see is the power behind him - the wife, the private secretary, all of the people that make up the safety net for this guy. But he begins to unravel because of a set of circumstances to do with expenses."

Lysette Anthony says the script has been "sharpened" to take in post-election events.

But she admits there was a wobbly moment when it looked like Labour might strike a deal with the Lib Dems to keep out the Tories.

"I thought: We're doomed. My accent's going to have to go, the Home Counties jokes won't work anymore. And I look so good in blue."

Personal politics

Image caption,
Swing follows three couples on election night

Swing, which opens this week at the Cock Tavern theatre in north London, comes at the election from a very different direction.

The "devised" drama focuses on the lives of the three couples, with events coming to a head on election night itself.

Director Jamie Harper says one of the benefits of improvisation is how it can respond quickly to real events.

The play itself is never scripted, but it is rehearsed. The cast has spent the last week knocking the story into shape.

"The same events unfold every night but the actual words that the actors use are endlessly moveable," says Harper.

"The big thing for us as dramatists is that politics is personal. One of the downsides of politics is that it's presented in abstract terms."

The inconclusive result on election night is mirrored in the lives of the couples on stage.

"I think we've got a marriage of convenience right now rather than a marriage of passion or ideals," says Harper of the coalition government.

"I think that's true of a lot of people's relationships - they have to swallow dearly-held principles in order to make something work."

But does he think audiences will be put off after weeks of election fever?

"This is a personal drama that has politics as a backdrop. We don't want to shove politics down people's throats, as a lot of people have had plenty of it."

Swing is at the Cock Tavern Theatre 22 May - 12 June. No Expense Spared is at the Jermyn Street Theatre 25 May - 26 June.

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