John Heffernan and Deborah Findlay are hugely watchable in The Inquiry at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester
“I can say what I think. Sometimes”
As a reviewer, one is often aiming to be as objective as possible but sometimes, that can be nigh on impossible. And by putting both Deborah Findlay and John Heffernan in the same show, Chichester Festival Theatre have made it very difficult for me as they are both absolute faves of mine. So Guardian investigative reporter Harry Davies’ debut play The Inquiry was already off to a good start, possibly well-needed given an extended preview period.
Thematically, he couldn’t be more on the button. As the UK Covid-19 Inquiry plays reveals the contempt so many politicians seem to have for retaining evidentiary material, Davies’ play covers a different type of emerging political scandal. In a fictionalised version of those Westminster halls, rising star MP Arthur Gill has clear designs on the next leadership race and becoming PM. There’s just the small matter of a public health disaster that happened under his previous ministerial watch and the inquiry that is just about to publish its findings.
With so much at stake, all manner of Machiavellian machinations come into play as politicians and lawyers butt heads and advisers and mandarins play increasingly dirty in order to satisfy their own positions. There’s a deep-rooted cynicism which stings with authenticity but the dramatic impetus takes far too long to take hold here as we ping-pong between two discrete groupings who alternate their scenes. Almost the whole first half is taken up with politicial process and obtuse conversations as we’re too slowly given the bigger picture of what is happening and who knows what and as crucial secrets are eventually revealed, there’s too much contrivance in how it all resolves.
Joanna Bowman’s production doesn’t much help matters by opting for a slow and steady pacing which only ever really ratchets up the tension effectively in the final quarter, the static naturalism proving punishing at times and had it not been Findlay and Heffernan leading their mostly separate scenes, it would have lost me entirely. As it is, Findlay is excellent as the redoubtable judge heading the inquiry and Heffernan plays the oleaginous Gill with skill, both reckoning with how to play the leverage they hold on the other until a final, single confrontation. Malcolm Sinclair is excellent as a manipulative party grandee, bringing a level of theatricality that is sadly missing in the rest of this production.