The premise of Hansard, Simon Woods’ debut play, sounds a bit like an alternative comedy sketch; a prim tory politician and his bohemian liberal wife have a quarrel. It’s the sort of absurd skit you’d expect from Harry Enfield, or Fry and Laurie; not a full-length tragicomic play. But, thanks to Simon Godwin’s direction, Hildegard Bechtler’s set, and a captivating performance from the two actors, the play manages to be quite entertaining. Not the socio-political masterpiece Woods seems to be going for, but quite entertaining.
It’s May 1988, and Robin – a junior minister in Margaret Thatcher’s government – returns home just before midday to find his wife, Diana, in her nightdress, and possibly quite tipsy. He’s been away for a week, having been called to Parliament for the year’s Local Government Act. The first half hour or so is essentially a comedy routine; they bite at each other, and their opposing personalities make them a perfect double act. He asks her why the booze is gone: “I thought you didn’t need to drink when I wasn’t around?” her response; “Sometimes the thought of you is enough.” She says she’s had a busy week, and he replies, “Good heavens, you haven’t been moving the cushions around on the sofa again, have you?”
Yet we’re all aware that it’s a 90-minute play, and these light-hearted quips going back and forth can’t make up the entire thing. We’re waiting for the “turn” or, if you like, the “reveal”. Michael Billington said in the Guardian that it’s structurally similar to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and it is – very much so. At times, too much so. Albee’s play also has a big reveal towards the end that morphs the comedic couple into a tragic pair, but the one we have in Hansard seems too contrived. It’s also so predictable that it verges on banality.
This is because of the central political premise of the play: Section 28 of the Local Government Act. It became illegal for a public institution, such as a school, to “promote” homosexuality. Robin arrives home after his party has successfully passed the bill, and his wife won’t let him hear the end of it. With such a sensitive subject, the comedy dies down and the punchlines are omitted from the argument (the play is essentially a 90-minute argument). And, in the last fifteen minutes, a buried chapter of their past is revealed that highlights not only the absurdity of the new law, but Robin’s part in bringing it to pass.
It’s in this melodramatic ending that the play loses its strength; Woods’ attempt to tie together the politics and the personal is forced. We never had any sympathy for Robin anyway; he’s a typical villainous tory who doesn’t even rebuke his wife’s accusation that he attacks the most vulnerable in society. He just shrugs it off and says something like “you’ve been at the Guardian again, haven’t you?” We’ve built up so much hatred for him in the main bulk of the play that this heart-wrenching backstory is too little too late.
Yet the dialogue is consistently well-crafted; it’s natural and witty, even in the serious moments. This, and the first-rate performances from Lindsay Duncan and Alex Jennings, just about stops us getting bored. Jennings has a difficult job playing Robin – a two-dimensional character created solely to be the butt of the anti-tory jokes – but he manages to breathe life into him. And Duncan plays long-suffering wife Diana with just the right combination of cynicism and compassion. The two of them dominate the stage, on which is a set so detailed it could be used for a film. The mugs on the coffee table are stained, and the dining table is so exquisitely set it seems a shame not to use it.
Come to think of it, everyone involved in this production does a stellar job of bringing Woods’ debut play to life, but it’s a shame that the piece itself needs a few rewrites. He knows what he’s doing – we can see that in the gripping dialogue – but the characters and plot don’t convince. Perhaps a political statement and a personal tragedy was too ambitious for a debut play.