Play number one of the Now half of Women, Power and Politics season at the Tricycle Theatre
Acting Leader is set in 1994 during the leadership contest for the Labour Party that was provoked by the untimely death of John Smith. Margaret Beckett was thrust into the position of Acting Leader of the Opposition and was persuaded to run for leader, but with the politicking of Blair and Prescott and the birth of New Labour on the horizon, Beckett faced an uphill struggle.
Achingly current with the Labour Party leadership contest now in full swing and yet sixteen years later, little change seems to have occurred. There’s still a female Acting Leader of the Labour Party but she isn’t even standing in the contest and the one female candidate who is there made it by the skin of her teeth after the strategic withdrawal of a rival.
Niamh Cusack plays Margaret Beckett with a gentleness, deeply moved by the loss of her colleague and friend and unsure of the right thing to do, constantly seeking reassurance from others, given succour by the slow growth of her campaign and the realisation that she does have as much to offer as the others, even as she is being ever more sidelined. Lara Rossi makes a mockery of the fact that this is her professional stage debut in playing all of the other roles in the play, a gruff but determined colleague in Clare Short (“you’re not the acting leader, you are the leader!”, a tender husband in Mr Beckett, an oily rival in Tony Blair, a gruff John Prescott, Rossi covers them all with aplomb and a good sense of comic timing.
It was a good play, but there was something about it I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I couldn’t decide if it was basking a little too much in hindsight, with the knowledge of what New Labour ended up being, could Beckett have taken Labour on the same reinvigorating journey to Number 10, I guess we’ll never know, but I think Wilkinson needs to give Blair a little more credit than he is given here, it was by no means a given that Labour would win the next General Election. And I never really felt I got sense of who Beckett really was, she was always figuratively and literally in the shadow of John Smith and his policies.