Will Barton’s engaging turn leads The Last Temptation Of Boris Johnson
As with the man himself, you don’t really know what to expect when walking into the Park Theatre‘s production of The Last Temptation of Boris Johnson. Is he a gifted political navigator or bumbling buffoon? Is this play a searing political satire or jovial character study? The answer to both lies somewhere in the murky middle ground, which makes for a light, albeit undeniably enjoyable production.
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Jonathan Maitland’s latest effort spans two very different years, two very different version of Britain, and one resolutely unchanged Boris. Both in 2016, at the now-infamous dinner with Michael Gove that finally tipped BoJo into supporting the Leave campaign, and in 2029, where a post-Brexit mess leaves our protagonist with a final shot at immortality, he’s the same optimistic, opportunistic pol, eyes forever on the grand prize of Prime Minister.
Indeed, the qualities which make Johnson an engaging politician also make him a ripe figure for the stage, and leading man Will Barton doesn’t disappoint. He’s got Boris’ affectations down nicely (indeed, this isn’t the first time he’s played the former Mayor) and sports a cracking turn of phrase, with a rumpled charm that impels you to root for him in spite of his, um, indelicate actions. Fairly or unfairly, Maitland’s creation has no real convictions save for one: that he’s on an inexorable journey to leadership. The only question now is which route to take.
Johnson’s dedication to the ‘great man theory’ is unwavering, even as the shifting sands of Brexit upend careers left right and centre. Having spent a career as a European correspondent, and then as an EU-antagonist from within the Conservative party, there’s a strong sense that the referendum is the moment his entire career has been leading up to, and he’s convinced of his ultimate success.
Despite his pompous Latin recitations, occasionally lame jokes, and inflated sense of self-worth, it’s this relentless faith that gives our protagonist his humanity: we can all root for a man desperately following his dreams, even as Michael Gove/the world/his own inadequacies seem determined to take them away from him. Johnson is Charlie Brown in this scenario, still aiming up one last kick at the football even as the world smirks and prepares to withdraw it once more, and you can’t help but sympathise a little with him.
Not everyone has it quite so rosy, though. Dugald Bruce-Lockhart puts in an excellent turn as Michael Gove, perhaps with even fewer convictions than Johnson – still, if BoJo is our hero, Gove invariably winds up being the villain of the piece. Meanwhile, in a play so concerned with ‘great men’, political spouses Marina Wheeler (Davina Moon) and Sarah Vine (Arabella Weir) aren’t quite as fleshed out as they could be – if you’re waiting for the play to pass the Bechdel test, you’ll be waiting a long time.
Weir gets a lot more to do as the vision of Winston Churchill, visiting the star-struck Boris like some Ghost of Christmas Past to solidify his beliefs. She’s part of a trio of phantoms, which also includes a desperately, overwhelmingly earnest Tony Blair (Tim Wallers, also wonderful as a smarmy Evgeny Lebedev and an increasingly Welsh Huw Edwards), whose pleas for Remainer common sense fall on deaf ears.
Still, if it’s impressions you’re after, the one who truly rivals Barton’s Johnson is Steve Nallon’s Margaret Thatcher. It’s unsurprising, given that he made his name on Spitting Image with a similarly spot-on impression, but Nallon’s plummy Thatcher is nevertheless one of the absolute highlights of a show in which not all the jokes land as lightly as they could.
It’s a credit to director Lotte Wakeham that the caricatures, despite becoming ever more pronounced as the play progresses (Thatcher accrues more and more rosettes, Churchill’s pinstripes get ever wider, and Blair slides even further into holiday mode), never quite edges into pantomime. A sparse, unadorned set similarly helps to keep the focus squarely on the fluctuating fortunes of our leading man.
Indeed, in the inevitable (dare I say slightly predictable?) denouement of the play, we start to see Maitland’s overall point. Like his hero Churchill, Johnson never gives in, never surrenders, and instead grasps resolutely for success, even when the world comes somewhat literally crashing down around him.
Putting political affiliations aside then, The Last Temptation of Boris Johnson functions as a morality play of sorts, showing the futility of our intentions even as it lauds our commitment to them, and Boris is, in this regard, our figurehead. Hey, I never thought I’d be rooting for Boris either, but to quote our protagonist, “the gentleman is for turning”.
The Last Temptation of Boris Johson runs at Park Theatre until June 8th.
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Also published on Medium.