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A CurtainUp Review

By Lizzie Loveridge

He doesn't keep promises. He doesn't break them either. He just erodes them. -- Paul

Jeremy Swift and Henry Goodman (Photo: John Haynes)

This is the age of spin. It seems as if how political policies are presented is more important than the formation and effects of those policies themselves. The extent to which public relations will go in manipulation of the media is satirised in Alistair Beaton's new play Feelgood.

Set in a Brighton/Blackpool hotel suite, the makeshift party headquarters for the annual Labour Party conference on the eve of the Prime Minister's speech to the "party faithful", the image makers are fine tuning his speech. There are of course parallels with the theatre, politicians become actors merely speaking the words written for them by others, so that words like "stage-managed" are used to describe what happens at non contentious party conferences.

If I were in politics I should like Out of Joint's Max Stafford-Clark to direct my party conference as seamlessly as he has this political comedy. Whilst much of the first act of Beaton's play consists of jokes with words being fomed as the political clich├ęs of the future, the second act shows an altogether darker and more sinister side. Here we see the extent to which party bosses will go, to suppress the truth. Henry Goodman, who won three awards last year for his performance as Shylock in Trevor Nunn's The Merchant of Venice proves that he is equally at home in comedy as he heads the cast as Eddie, an East End boy living on his political wits.

As Paul (Jeremy Swift) and Eddie settle down to an all night session writing the big speech, various political crises loom. Demonstrators about environmental issues hijack the conference and protesters are gathering in the streets outside the hotel. Meanwhile, George (Nigel Planer), a close friend of the Prime Minister and member of the government, is implicated in a GM foods experiment which has gone horribly wrong, resulting in beer being made from genetically modified hops. Men drinking this beer have developed women's breasts. This, after the country has been assured that no such experiment exists. Simon (Pearce Quigley), a facile television sitcom writer, is imported to inject humour into the PM's speech. Liz (Sian Thomas), Eddie's divorced wife and a journalist, is the voice of the left. She has started to put the story together. A deal is struck to keep the scandal out of the headlines.

But Beaton's play does not end there. There are more shocking events before it culminates with the Prime Minister's (Nigel Cooke) speech to conference. Alistair Beaton, whilst not having written many plays, has had sound experience writing for television satire which is much in evidence here. There is so much topical detail that I am really encouraged at the standard of the writing which raises the play above the level of farce.

Henry Goodman's dark suited Eddie's stress levels soar as the crisis deepens and he shows us that he is a very physical comedian as he writhes and lurches around manically. Eddie has touches of the obsessive about his imported leather relaxer, strangely incongruous alongside the hotel's chintz covered furniture and swagged curtains. He is not a nice man but his competitiveness and market trader, streetwise canniness will keep him on top. He is openly annoyed by Asha (Amita Dhiri). Diri gives a rather underconfident performance as the Prime Minister's female Personal Assistant.

Jeremy Swift's long suffering, mild mannered Paul is caught between his ex wife and child, and his current boyfriend inappropriately phoning him at work. Nigel Planer, too gives a sound performance as hapless Georget the middle aged alcoholic. I also liked Pearce Quigley's quick fire, terrible jokes and his irrepressible humour. Sian Thomas waits in her hotel room through one of those infuriating multi option phonecalls where you "press the star key on your phone now" in an attempt to reach room service via the hotel's banquetting, conference and wedding, room booking and car parking options. As the investigative journalist she is bright, but in deviousness, she is no match for her ex husband - both fine performances. The finale, the speech from Tony Blair look alike Nigel Cooke is so convincing that I fully expected him to move into the crowd to be congratulated.

The two hotel sets, the suite and Liz's bedroom are just as they should be, with that fussy insubstantial reproduction period furniture with the same reproduction oil painting in both. The finished speech is also relayed on a large screen. Of course now we know what lay behind the Prime Minister's words with the new catchphrase "We want a job culture not a yob culture" but we especially enjoy him telling us that he has torn up his prepared speech to give this heartfelt, spontaneous one. Yeah!

Written by Alistair Beaton
Directed by Max Stafford-Clark

Starring: Henry Goodman
With: Jeremy Swift, Anita Dhiri, Nigel Planer, Pearce Quigley, Sian Thomas, Nigel Cooke/Jonathan Cullen
Design: Julian McGowan
Lighting Design: Johanna Town
Sound Design: Simon Baker
Running time: Two and a half hours with one interval
Box Office: 020 7722 9301
Booking to 10th March 2001
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 1st February 2001 performance at Hampstead Theatre, Swiss Cottage, London NW3
Transferred to the Garrick, 2 Charing Cross Road London WC2 from 21st April, Box Office 020 7494 5085
Booking to September 15th 2001

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