THE ABSENCE OF WAR Oxford Playhouse & touring

David Hare’s 1994 play reimagining the 1992 election – elegantly staged by Headlong and director Jeremy Herrin – has toured since February, doughty as a battlebus , energized and angsty as the doomed Labour campaign. On election night it’s in Bath, a brave place to affirm in swooping rhetoric that the Labour party is “the only practical instrument that exists in this country for changing people’s lives for the good”.

So I caught it on the wing, and a fine night out it is. It was inspired by the situation of Neil Kinnock, who dragged the party’s left into a “pact with respectability” to try and end the long run of Tory triumphs. Hare writes a hilariously huffy programme note about how the Labour front-bench hated it because the hero George was not a red-headed Welshman with a wife called Glenys. Silly of them, since George (marvellously played by Reece Dinsdale) is six times more personally beguiling than Kinnock ever was: thoughtful, jokey, never eating anything at diplomatic banquets so as to save room for his own recipe scrambled eggs with chilli peppers. He’s a rounded autodidact rooted in old wisdoms, a theatre-buff who explodes in fury at wasting a Hamlet ticket because the crafty Tory leader calls a snap election (“The bastard’s going down the Mall!”). He’s wonderful. Vote Dinsdale!
But, as in history, they don’t. Hare is exploring the perennial problem of an idealistic, leftist Labour party finding it difficult to persuade a suspicious electorate that it is fit to govern. Historically, the play marks the divide between that kind of Labour (to which we seem to be returning under Ed Miliband) and the New-Lab, Blairy, relaxed-about-the-filthy-rich variety which did win five years later. George has surrounded himself with a clique of unelected policy-engineers and spinners – Cyril Nri splendid as Oliver, James Harkness a wincey Scot who eats croissants worrying that it betrays his Paisley roots: and a brisk Charlotte Lucas as Lindsay, the PR adviser.
This clique may improve his chances – so they think, as they crunch through polls about whether he is “thoughtful..downbeat..solitary..boring…” etc and beg him to say “fairness” not “equality” , to bang on about the NHS a lot, and never to mention the economy because that “reminds people he’ll be in charge of their money” . Yet at the same time this image micromanagement is imprisoning him, killing his passion and personality. So are the “whingeing backbenchers” the doughty old post-war idealist Vera (Helen Ryan, very funny in her brief fierce asides) and a treacherous shadow chancellor silkily played by Gyuri Sarossy. George flunks a nasty TV interview, punches Oliver, and faces election day with sad, steely dignity. There’s even a big rally – like the one which torpedoed Kinnock – with music of which someone immortally says “I didn’t know Hitler composed..”

So plenty of modern echoes from the distant far side of the Blair-Brown era, and plenty to reflect on, whichever is your party. Hare also skewers exactly (whether he intended to or not) the contempt rife on the political left for actual voters, who simply don’t understand what’s good for them.
One little dishonesty I could have done without: the cameo Tory PM is portrayed as an arrogant, entitled pinstriped Oxbridgey toff. Students outside the theatre were chortling about that. So I had to tell them with aged maternal sternness that actually, the Tory leader who beat Kinnock was a man who grew up with impoverished variety-artiste parents in two rooms in Brixton, and left school with three O levels, did more on his own as a clerk, and worked his way up.: John Major. So there!

0186 530 5305 to 11th
then touring to 8th May – Cambridge, Kingston, Bath
rating; four 4 Meece Rating


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