“The closer you are to the truth, the harder it is talk about it”
Loyalty is the debut play from Sarah Helm, a journalist and author who also happens to be the wife of Jonathan Powell, who was Tony Blair’s chief of staff. This privileged position made her an intimate witness to the weeks leading up to the 2003 invasion which she opposed and it is that that she has developed into this work – described as ‘a fictionalised memoir’ – of the struggle of a chief of staff Nick to balance the personal and political as he advises a Prime Minister named Tony who is edging closer to invading Iraq with an American President named George whilst ignoring his own conscience and the stridently vocal objections of his wife Laura. But it is fiction remember, at least some of the names are different…
The first half is genuinely excellent. Helm locates it firmly in the Stockwell home of Nick and Laura and we become observers along with Laura and her trusty notepad as Nick is involved with phone calls between the Prime Minister and figures of global importance discussing highly sensitive matters which we overhear. How this refracts back through their daily life is endlessly fascinating: the top secret documents just lying around the house, her frustrations at not being able to write about these things, the tensions caused by her friendship with an ex who just happens to be a journalist, the casualness with which he discusses the PM with their Polish au pair, even the level of security necessary in their home, the level of detailing is just undeniably authentic and convincing. And Maxine Peake as Laura anchors the play with an exceptional performance.
As a memoir, Laura oftens addresses the audience directly, looking back from some unspecified moment, and Peake delivers these with a grounded matter-of-factness and with a delightfully convivial tone as we are taken into her confidence. And in a wonderful moment I wish the Whingers would see, she gets out her piping bag and decorates her child’s birthday cake though they’d probably object to the licking of the spoon. She is matched excellently with Lloyd Owen’s harried Nick, trying to be all things to all people and trying to keep a steady hand on the tiller at an unimaginably difficult time. Ed Hall’s production adopts a small thrust at the Hampstead so that even though the stage is quite large, there is a cosy domestic feel here just right for the numerous scenes at they discuss things in bed (though equally exposing a few random details, a distractingly large hole in his sock, her putting on a baffling extra layer of nightwear!) the personal and political inextricably intertwined at a fascinating point in recent history, given a most relatable context.
It’s a shame then that the second half eschews this to move to Downing Street and become something much more of a conventional drama. The focus shifts to the Prime Minister as invasion looms ever closer, looking at his strained relationship with the intelligence services and the major problems posed by the questionable legitimacy of one of their major sources who’d confirmed the presence of WMD. Helm manages to wangle Laura into Downing Street for this second half, but it is tenuously done she’s very much reduced to a passive role here. Consequently, the show loses some of its vitality – it still remains entertaining – but it doesn’t match up to the inventiveness of the opening act.
And because the play occupies a funny territory between fact and fiction, I couldn’t help but feel uneasy at times with the way Helm writes. There’s a sense of score-settling that rears its head every so often, made all the more plain by the use of real names, so there’s a dig at ‘Cherie’ a propos of nothing and the simmering resentment at ‘Tony’ manifests itself in a number of tiny details, none of them flattering yet all designed to cement his place as the villain of the piece: the excuse of fictionalisation doesn’t really wash here and Patrick Baladi’s performance caught between a serious portrayal and an almost spoof-like approach. That this is contrasted with the virtual sainthood of ‘Laura’, an unflagging champion for the truth, stuck in the craw a little; the much needed hit of ambiguity as far as Nick’s character is concerned, acknowledging the murky complexity of having to actually deal with the reality of global politics, comes far too late for my liking.
Personally I couldn’t escape the sense that the absolute moral certainty that accompanies much of Laura’s rhetoric comes with a huge dollop of hindsight, with full view of the ongoing horrendous consequences of the decision to invade. Was it really just as simple as saying no? Was that actually a realistic proposition for someone shouldering such a responsibility as opposed to someone just sitting in their kitchen? I wish Helm had investigated these points a little more, but I suppose that is more about my personal views on the subject. As it is, Loyalty offers a highly enjoyable opportunity to revisit your own.