I KNEW nothing about this play before I went to see it, apart from recognising the title, and was expecting a Ray Cooney style political farce, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that this was no farce, but a comic satire; a commentary on the dire state of politics in the early 21st Century.
Whipping It Up was written by Steve Thompson in 2005 while in residence at the Bush Theatre, a small fringe venue in Shepherd’s Bush based above The Bush public house until a few years ago when it moved to a disused library building. Since its founding in 1972 The Bush has produced new work by many writers who are now very well known, including Richard Bean, Mark Ravenhill and Nick Darke, as well as the author of The Swan’s latest offering.
Fitting somewhere between the gentle digs of Yes, Minister and the obscenity-ridden The Thick Of It, this is a delightful look at how a Conservative Whip’s office is run, during the build-up to, and aftermath of, a seemingly unimportant vote about the taxation of tents, which may or may not be a challenge to the leadership, and therefore force a vote of no confidence, and possibly a General Election. Thompson writes his characters with few redeeming features, and they need to be completely believable for us to be sucked into the maelstrom of Westminster and Whitehall.
Tonight’s company did not disappoint. Once the initial two characters, Deputy Whip Alastair, played with his usual integrity and never slipping from character in to caricature by Robert Graydon, and new MP Guy, played honestly and with just enough naivety by Swan newcomer Jonathan Peckover, warmed into the first night, we were pulled along with every twist and turn of this ride, full of throw-away insults and awful language, causing loud laughter, especially at the accusation of being “sent to Millfield”, the sports-based school just a short drive from Yeovil, in Street. The junior whip, Tim, was played with a genuine and slimy civility by Sam Rich, and as The Chief, Andy Wood was every bit as bombastic as he should be, wielding a sharpened cricket stump with which he could hit Tim when necessary, and reminding us all that he has more power and influence than anyone else in the Palace of Westminster.
Into this world of whippery come Elizabeth Todd as young Maggie, a journalist formerly rejected as a Tory candidate, appropriately dressed for us to believe her motives and truly believing she has the wherewithal to trick these experienced men at their own game, and Di Somerville as Labour Whip Delia, giving the role just enough of the old school headmistress to make her performance as believable as every other part of this tightly-directed production.
The set, designed by Dick Bennett, was wonderful, especially the dressing of it, with lopsided files on shelves, plenty of champagne and other drink in a chiller cabinet, weary desks, and a TV monitor which by facing upstage was able to cleverly light the characters in a dark evening scene. The costume, as usual at the Swan, was just right, with nothing glaringly out of place, even down to dark underwear under a thin white blouse helping with the character of Maggie.
It is Alison Maynard-Griffin’s first play as Director, and quick though she is to mention her assistants and mentors, she should be proud of what she and her team have achieved. This was a slick, clever production, played with absolute honesty and integrity, and giving us a scary glimpse into a horrible world of manipulation which we can only hope has been at least slightly exaggerated in this play.