It is a mark of how Boris Johnson become a larger-than-life political personality that this is the second play in a year now which has focused on his career, whether past imperfect or future indefinite. Last year’s Kingmaker at Above the Arts approached Boris from the perspective of House of Cards. The focus on Boris was indirect and more forensically directed towards the general Machiavellian wiles of politicians than dwelling on the boundaries between guileful bonhomie and brash bullying that are the centre of attention here. Whereas Thatcher and Blair did not become figures of theatrical fascination until they had reached the highest office, Boris intrigues writers without actually having held a ministerial position.
There are many reasons for this, but two stand out, and both of them form part of the focus of this play. The first is that Boris has made such good use of self-deprecatory humour where politicians of much lesser privilege and far greater self-discipline have failed completely. In current circumstances, where personality rather than policy is mostly king, the way in which Boris has contrived to create a persona that is both exotic and transgressive but still capable of self-ridicule plays precisely to a public mood that is distrustful of ‘politics as usual’ but very willing to be seduced by colour and articulacy applied with a light, self-mocking touch.
And the second reason flows from the first – namely how far does the image match the reality? Is the real Boris the same as the ‘brand’, and how much is calculated appearance as opposed to real-life complexity?
We start with a bare stage, the audience on three sides, and a red velvet backdrop, a signature bike off-stage and BORIS picked out in dressing-room bulbs. The presumption is that this is Boris putting on his own West-End show, part-autobiography and part game-show. A narrator – the familiar orotund, if not oracular tones of Simon Callow – provides the links between the scenes.
A running gag starts a parallel theme in which Boris has to break into the show to manage an apparently disastrous gaffe which has reached the press. Then the narrator assumes Olympian status and takes over the direction of the play along lines suggested by the classical education from which Boris draws so much of his inspiration. Will Boris become ‘world king’ or succumb to hubris and nemesis instead?
Tom Crawshaw’s programme note suggests he is looking to give us a more nuanced and wry take on Boris and his persona than usual, but on the whole this is not the one we actually receive in the play. The writing is acute in demonstrating the ways in which the boundaries between high politics and world of celebrity trivia have now effectively broken down.
By presenting Boris as a game-show host, engaging in embarrassing interaction with the audience, the mirror is held up to us as much as to him, and we are reminded that by and large we get the politicians we deserve. However, there is rather too much of this stuff, which takes the action further in the two-dimensional direction of panto than it needs to go – the show could be shorn of some of its earlier sections to advantage.
If it came in at around an hour it would be tighter too and pack more of a punch. My sense is that it has grown from its original dimensions in Edinburgh and that has distorted its proportions. While there is a change of gear about an hour into the show, which introduces more serious themes and reflections, it comes too late. The relentless pantomime tone has begun to pall by then, and more importantly lets Boris off the hook too easily at a number of points.
David Benson has a long and distinguished career now as an acute impersonator of public figures, numbering Kenneth Williams, Noel Coward and Frankie Howerd among his roles.There is no doubt that in the externals much is right – the ill-fitting suit, the physical clumsiness, whether real or contrived, and a particularly rebellious synthetic blond wig all play their part.
The vocal resemblance is also uncanny – Benson has captured the contrast between the hesitations and air of self-apology on the one hand and the polysyllabic precision and fluency on the other. He does not resemble Boris facially but you forget that after a while and readily go along with the fun and games.
Alice McCarthy takes on a range of roles to provide a foil to Benson. She is a long-suffering stage manager, an early girl-friend, a Brussels-based journalist, and a stand-in for Conrad Black and other former employer-mentors or baffled authority figures. These parts are all inevitably two-dimensional foils to the central character but neatly differentiated all the same, with plenty of feisty resistance and outrage where required.
There are hints of subtler stuff – for example, a neat scene in which Boris pretends not to understand French in order to extract a story from a fellow journalist, before revealing his own facility in the language, and small gestures towards examining the many less endearing, steely traits that Boris, like all successful politicians possess. However, they are frustratingly never followed through in the kind of forensic detail that would be needed to get below all the layers of carefully contrived flaky flim-flam that comprise the public personality.
There are levels of interpretation out there, well within public reach, that are not explored. For example there is little or no mention of Churchill, who is a key reference point to understanding where Johnson comes from and thinks he is going. While Johnson’s recent biography tells us little or nothing about its subject that we did not know already, it gives us – for once – a wholly unambiguous sense of Johnson’s aspirations.
Instead of playing with Boris’ childhood ambition to be ‘world king’ the writer could have explored his actual political ambitions with serious intent as well as comic effect, and thus brought his riff on Johnson to a more satisfactory close.
Doubtless this show will do well, not least through the ability of its subject to hog the headlines during the run-up to the EU referendum. As with The Audience, to which it bears some comparison, the actors will be learning lots of new gags as the run progresses. But for a mature consideration of whether Boris is a calculating master of the modern era of political brand modelling or a sphinx without a riddle we shall have to wait for another treatment.