The Hampstead’s latest offering, from artistic director Edward Hall, is based on the events leading up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and its fallout. Loyalty is Sarah Helm’s first foray into writing for the stage and, she being a journalist and wife to Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former Chief of Staff, few people could be better qualified to give an inside story.
Nevertheless, it’s billed as a ‘fictionalised memoir’. Thus, Sarah and Jonathan become Laura and Nick. Tony, however, is still Tony, Gordon is Gordon and Bush, Bush. Kofi, Murdoch and Alastair are themselves too. But it’s fiction! No, really.
Helm paints an amusing picture of what it’s like to share a husband with the Prime Minister: “We even had him and Gordon at my bedside while I was in labour, talking about the Euro.” And there are plenty of comical references to Blair as an ‘other woman’ figure. “I just think you’re spending too much time with him,” Laura moans. “You’re back later and later every night…” As its title suggests, the play is about loyalty. Specifically, Nick’s loyalty to Tony versus his loyalty to Laura. Because, oh yeah, major plot point: Laura is against the war.
Maxine Peake is Laura, scribbling furious notes with her ear pressed to the telephone as Nick sits in on secure conference calls between Tony and various world leaders, senior government ministers and media moguls. (Some nicely topical moments in there.) She gives a passionate, highly energised performance; managing to convey the impression she’s always on the tips of her toes or the edge of her seat, constantly engaging her audience. Lloyd Owen is the stable, consistently professional Nick, with Patrick Baladi as his boss, who plays Tony as a rather arrogant, vain, ineffectual old boy type.
Hall creates a well-paced, frantic production. The chaotic disorder of Nick and Laura’s house, which they’re in the process of redecorating (“Can’t you tell [Bush] to ring back in the morning?” Laura pleads. ‘We’ve got to look at some tiles.”), mimics the state of their relationship. Toasters are on bedside tables, the red boxes that are delivered daily are piled high, Tony’s soiled shirts litter the bedroom floor – the soundtrack a cacophony of ringing telephones, high security alarms and wailing sirens.
Helm’s debut is intelligent and it makes you laugh, usually bitterly. But if it was intended to shock, it rather falls short – if only because the events of the play are no more appalling than what we already knew; the ‘dodgy dossier’, the death of David Kelly and the belated admission: ‘Er, actually, there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq after all. Soz!’
Production image: Manuel Harlan