Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky’s new political comedy features a familiar set-up: a coalition government, formed of Tories and Liberal Democrats. Coalition shows the point of view of the junior partner, the Liberal Democrats. The year is 2015, and after five years, their unholy alliance is starting to unravel.
At this point, I will pause to explain to my American readers that the last British election, held in 2010, resulted in a ‘hung parliament;’ that is, no party won the minimum number of constituencies required to take control of the government. Consequently, the Tories (Conservatives), who had won the majority of votes, entered into an unlikely partnership with the Liberal Democrats (a third party, the closest US equivalent is the Libertarians). The result is the current Coalition government, Britain’s first coalition to have lasted for more than a few months since 1929. David Cameron, the leader of the Tories, is Prime Minister and Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, is Deputy Prime Minister.
So, back to the production at the Pleasance Theatre in Islington. Coalition stars comedian Thom Tuck as Deputy Prime Minister Matt Cooper. His character is obviously supposed to make us think of Clegg, but in fact bears little resemblance to him. Cooper is a grubby and embarrassingly needy politician. An early gag concerns how desperately excited he is to have his first meeting with the Prime Minister in months. The plot charts Cooper’s downfall after his Energy Secretary refuses to back a Nuclear Power station. Spectacularly incompetent, Cooper bumbles from one disaster to another, ignoring the advice of his far more capable subordinate staff. The play suggests that, in the pattern of an Aristotelian tragedy, Cooper’s lust for power leads him to sacrifice his principles, which ultimately causes him to self-destruct.
My chief complaint about this play as it could easily have been forty minutes shorter. Several unnecessary scenes are played out before the plot falls into place. When the plot at last arrives, the evening becomes more enjoyable. There are plenty witty zingers and amusing performances.
Ultimately, however, Coalition lacks bite. Part of the problem is that Matt Cooper bears so little resemblance to Nick Clegg. I guess we are supposed to dislike him because he is a smarmy, and a figure of foolish pride. But that’s shooting fish in a barrel. I suspect another thing that cripples this play is the fact that Britain does political satire so well already. Coalition fails to be as impressive as an episode of Yes, Prime Minister or The Thick of It.
I suppose I was never going to warm to this play because I disagreed with its chief accusation that the Liberal Democrats, as represented by Cooper, have sold their souls in the name of power. I can remember a pertinent episode of Question Time that aired shortly after the Coalition government had formed. Both panelists and audience members made the same accusations as Khan and Salinsky, branding Clegg as ‘just another politician hungry for power.’ But surely, I thought to myself, gaining power was always the name of the game. No one becomes a politician if they don’t want power.