FringeReview UK 2023
An absorbing, in many ways authoritative first play Refusing cynicism, trying for humanity all round, Harry Davies is already striking the right balance. His next play should be eagerly awaited.
Directed by Joanna Bowman, Set Designer Max Jones, Lighting Designer Mark Henderson, Sound Designer Christopher Shutt, Movement Director Yarit Dor, Casting Director Charalotte Sutton CDG
Dramaturg Kate Bassett, Production Manager John Page, Assistant Director Cory Hippolyte, Costume Supervisor Sabia Smith, Props Supervisor Sharon Foley
Company Stage Manager Suzi Blakey, Deputy Stage Manager Gareth Newcombe, Assistant Stage Manager Isobel Eagle-Wilsher
Till November 11th
A brief downpour half-drowning stage voices at the Chichester‘s Minerva echoed the programme cover’s illustration. A minister shields his head with a red dispatch box as rain torrents on him. Indeed Harry Davies’ debut play The Inquiry directed by Joanna Bowman (returning after Sing Yer Hearts Out for the Lads last year) is about more than deep water for the characters.
People, places, things have been poisoned by bodies of thousands buried in a national emergency (easy to guess which). An aftermath brings alleged cover-ups Lady Justice Deborah Wingate (Deborah Findlay) is appointed to clarify. An inquiry can’t convict, but can point and apportion. Reputations can fall.
None more so than the newly-appointed Lord Chancellor whose inauguration is spotlit by Mark Henderson’s deftest touches bar one. Arthur Gill MP (John Heffernan) was minister of state responsible, who whistle-blew on the debacle and came out well, holding Eastern Water to account. Apparently. Gill’s on the rise, tipped for future PM; that might be on the voting cards.
Previously actor and theatre-researcher after studying drama, Davies became a Guardian journalist before reverting to theatre. He’s thus ideally-placed to dramatize the paper-milling, research grind, compromise, back-channels, redactions and ‘Maxwellisations’: whereby those accused can object and obfuscate, get a right of reply to an inquiry, before a word’s published.
We’re still digesting the as-yet unpublished Grenfell inquiry, as well as being fed leaks from the current Covid one. So much of Davies’ play isn’t just topical, but familiar: What’s Apps leaks, ‘Dr Death’ soubriquets. Indeed this play notes one ailing PM offstage. Leaks here shade into spooks and buggings.
Heffernan’s offhand, lightly obnoxious minister surrounds himself with aides. There’s civil servant Donna Brooke (Macy Nyman) stigmatised for sending out decaffinated coffee; whose one riposte is tellingly: “I can say what I think. Sometimes.” Nyman’s underused; with her watchful performance there’s plot-points that might have been tied here.
More authoritative, SPAD Helen Linwood (Stephanie Street) minds Arthur, ferrets out and fillets the latest shafts of the Inquiry, fends off journalists. Linwood too, given a critically-edged glare by Street is a character one feels might have been made more of: especially in Street’s body-language and mute withdrawal of approval at critical moments.
Arthur himself in Heffernan’s hands is certainly arrogant, not brattish. He turns in a moment when safely alone with Helen, after meeting critical-but-tame lobby journalist Elyse Lamy (Shazia Nicholls), whose sister he knew. Nicholls
exudes edgy-friendly haggling, quid-pro-quo. She’s found another Arthur. The name on the back of two very close likenesses of the minister, in portrait paintings from over 20 years ago, both semi-nudes. It turns out they’re at the heart of this play, but lie, like evidence, as sleepers.
It’s with the introduction of former mentor and “fairy godmother” Lord Patrick Thorncliffe KC (Malcolm Sinclair) that stakes are raised. Insinuating fatherly-plus-intimate in “Arturo”, Sinclair’s mastery of sinister oozes fixing beyond the realpolitik of Bismark. He accesses spooks to push way beyond what Arturo countenances. It even puts the latter in a good light. But. Watching Sinclair play Heffernan’s squirming minister is like tasting 91% pure chocolate.
And there‘s slow-dissolving delight in the way Davies constructs the play and Bowman paces it. You might say it’s at the speed of dark. It allows plot to unfold with granitic revelation, a slow winding keeping the two key protagonists apart till the final big scene. Indeed there’s much duetting. Heffernan and Nicholls enjoy three allowing trust to fray with reveals and bargains.
Appearing only with Findlay, Wingate’s friend Jonathan Hayden KC (Nicholas Rowe) counsels a more benign version of Sinclair’s character. Indeed his desire to create a dossier for the police is what excites action, when the dark-arts fixer hears of it, literally. Rowe’s mix of suave ripples with anxiety, a push of urgent behind his bonhomie.
The friendship includes a memorable single appearance of a back garden in Max Jones’ otherwise swept panel-and-green-leather set, lit by Henderson. It allows Findlay’s Wingate an urbane if privileged humanity. There’s enough zeal for truth and decency to balance against small cupidities like building an extension, wine, a complacency about husband and daughters leaving separate lives. Findlay’s dismissals, demurrals and discomfiture furnish a small masterclass.
Hayden’s pursuing self-vanishing emails that haven’t vanished in time to save Gill from complicity with Eastern Water. But Gill’s not the only one with secrets. First Hayden then Wingate herself are emmeshed in embarrassments. But it’s who’s prepared to be more ruthless when Gill demands something of Wingate. And one secret is one they find they share.
Davies is open in his indebtedness to working with Kate Bassett’s dramaturgy. Indeed there was a delayed first night; one sees both clean unfolding and possible cuts. Either way, leaks that concern the minister at the start aren’t wrapped up (this might enrich other confrontations) so everything sweeps to a showdown.
It’s an absorbing, often authoritative first play: perhaps the finest outside verbatim theatre we have about such processes. Beyond faint echoes of Ibsen Miller and especially Hare, Davies recalls the structured tread of Stephen Beresford’s masterly The Southbury Child mounted here last year. While not as humanly rich a play – how could it be? – nor as generous to its characters, Davies’ is an important political drama: leaner, sometimes sketchier, but authentic even if the finale surprises. Refusing cynicism, trying for humanity all round, Davies is already striking the right balance. His next play should be eagerly awaited.