With a blast of emotive classical music, five actors walk onto a polished stage full of clean lines and shining metal, a political party conference room. They are backed by a set of TV screens, depicting the House of Commons. This is the cast of A Walk On Part, a show about ‘the fall of New Labour’, adapted deftly for the stage by Michael Chaplin from the diaries of Chris Mullin, former Labour MP for Sunderland South.
The first impression given by John Hodgkinson’s Chris Mullin is of bumbling cartoonish ridiculousness. With his hair combed into a parody of Mullin’s baldness, mismatched tie and poorly cut suit, Hodgkinson’s portrayal is far from sympathetic, and, indeed, naturalistic. His ‘Cwith’ Mullin is four parts caricature and one part truth.
However, once you have adjusted to the heightened reality of this piece, hilarity and intensity ensue. It is a bit caricatured, but if you can accept that, even laugh along with it, you’re likely to enjoy this show. Hodgkinson is admirably supported by four actors who play more than ninety ‘characters’, from an impeccable Tony Blair (‘The Man’ according to Mullin) to a side-splitting John Prescott (‘JP’), Mullin’s boss when he is first thrust into ministerial service, at Environment. Special mention should go to Jim Kitson who plays Prescott, as well as Gordon Brown in his rise and fall. Kitson matches his wonderful comic acting with a darker pallet when playing a Ukrainian refugee, whom Mullin is forced to deport to Spain.
Kitson’s wonderful combination of light and shade, as well as his masterful timing, is emblematic of the strengths of the piece as a whole. Although A Walk On Part is, at times, overly cartoonish, and it takes a scene or two to tune in to its arch style and glib pacing, there is an inherent truth, an emotional dynamism to the piece that is hard to dismiss. It never delivers political dogma, nor does it lecture, and the moments of regret are only highlighted by their contrast with the comic meat of the piece. The moment when Labour first accede to victory in 1997 is little short of joyful, and lends an emotional and political reality to Mullin’s gradually fading confidence in ‘The Man’. Similarly, Mullin’s final speech of his political career is delivered with an astoundingly authentic quality: Hodgkinson seems still genuinely moved at the curtain call.
One interesting thing about the performance I saw was that it seemed to have a captive audience. There were roars of clearly leftie laughter at a depiction of a smirking young George Osborne, and at the rise of the young, deceptively likable David Cameron. A Walk On Part seemed to be playing to a sympathetic Labour audience on the night that I saw it, and I have a suspicion that this gave it a marginally easy ride. This is not to say that it wasn’t an excellent show – it was an evening that was entertaining, moving and true in equal measure, which is uncommon and difficult to top. It was consistently well acted and the direction was spare, neat, even occasionally subtle. However, I wonder if it plays this well to a different audience demographic. That said, given the performance I saw, I can urge you, without hesitation, to go and see it. Unlike moments of The Man’s political career, you won’t regret it.
A Walk On Part runs until 10th December downstairs at the Soho Theatre.