Review: A Walk On Part, Soho Theatre

“It’s fashionable to believe that all politicians are useless”

On paper, the theatricalisation of a set of political diaries from a former Labour backbencher featuring a veritable multitude of characters from the corridors of power ought not to have worked. But the 13 years covered by A Walk On Part document the journey of New Labour from fresh-faced idealists to brow-beaten petty squabblers and our chronicler, Chris Mullin, is an insightful, frank and often brutally honest narrator who offers an illuminating view from the insider perspective of life as a working politician.

A fiercely independent mind, Mullin served as the MP for Sunderland South and skirted around the edges of power in a number of junior ministerial positions, even occupying the post of Africa minister at one point, despite being a vocal objector to the war in Iraq. But being so frequently ‘off-message’ with the powers-that-be meant his journey in Westminster was one of ups and downs. We get a taste of life too as a constituency MP in an area of the country decimated by the decline of the manufacturing industry and haunted by the endless queues of asylum-seeker cases as well as snapshots of his personal life and the impact of his career on his family.

Michael Chaplin’s adaptation of Mullin’s accounts take the form of a whistle-stop tour through the key events of the last decade with a dazzling array of supporting characters popping up, sometimes to just utter a single word, but the format works perfectly as there’s such a great deal of humour in here thanks to Mullin’s candour. Few colleagues escape unscathed from his often pointed observations – Glenda Jackson, Hilary Armstrong and Geoff Hoon were some of the ones that stuck out most for me and Mandelson and Brown pull laughs too – but underlying the comedy is a really rather moving personal journey.

John Hodgkinson brings Mullin to rumpled life beautifully, detailing the private frustrations, the professional pride and the persuasive pull that Tony Blair, or The Man as he terms him, exerted on him. There’s a remarkable even-handedness about the depiction of the New Labour experience here, it is all too easy to be sneeringly dismissive of what happened especially in taking the Iraq war as the be-all-and-end-all but Tony Blair, performed excellently here by Hywel Morgan, is given a rounded portrayal – flaws and all – which ought to remind people that judging with hindsight isn’t always the fairest thing to do: do people really believe nothing at all was achieved across those three Labour administrations.

Noma Dumezweni, Howard Ward and Tracy Gillman round off the highly flexible company, switching between characters effortlessly and Max Roberts ensures maximum clarity as we skip through the years. The balance between the personal and the political is perfectly judged and we never grow tired of Mullin as a central figure as he repeatedly reminds us of his own fallibility – the end result though is one of genuine admiration for those who so firmly the life of a career politician in the pursuit of what they believe to be right. Highly entertaining and an entirely refreshing change from New Labour-bashing.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Playtext cost: £5
Booking until 14th April

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