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1979 by Michael Healey at Finborough Theatre | Review

1979, by Canadian playwright Michael Healey, looks at the nine-month premiership of Joe Clark, Canada’s youngest prime minister, someone who, if the play is at all accurate, had no charisma whatsoever and was a complete non-entity. He had the reputation of being bumbling and indecisive, uncomfortable with current affairs, losing his luggage on his first tour abroad and nearly being decapitated by a soldier’s bayonet when he, Joe, turned too quickly! For his months in power, he led a minority government but refused to make any deals with other parties to ensure that he could pass legislation.

1979. Joseph May and Ian Porter, credit Simon Annand.
1979. Joseph May and Ian Porter, credit Simon Annand.

Joseph May has the unenviable task of being Joe Clark, someone with a total lack of political understanding. He appears to have no motivation – “grey” is an appropriate word to describe him! May does his very best but has so little to work with – and he is on stage most of the time.

Other characters are more interesting: Ian Porter imbues Pierre Trudeau with terrific energy, especially in the “chain saw” scene. Do not get excited – there is precious little action in this play but a great deal of talking! He is also excellent as Canadian politician John Crosbie. Both Porter and May extract as much as possible from the script, trying, often vainly, to lift it off the page, but determined to give it their very best shot.

Samantha Coughlan is asked to play five characters, three of whom are male, and it is no reflection on her to say that she is fighting a losing battle in trying to give any of them real depth or motivation. Her roles exist purely to give Clarke someone to discuss politics with, most of the play being structured in a series of duologues, the penultimate one with Coughlan as a young Stephen Harper, Canadian prime minister from 2006 to 2015.

In fact, this 80-minute play feels more like a political science lecture than a piece of theatre, especially as the director, Jimmy Walters, has detailed background information almost continuously displayed on a screen at the back of the stage like a “PowerPoint”! This is information overload and distracting – even if it is necessary, as only students of Canadian politics are likely to know (or care?) much of what we are bombarded with. Walters attempts to direct the piece with great energy and pace as well as trying to give the different duologues variety, but all the time is hampered by the pedestrian nature of the writing.

The set, dominated by a huge desk centre stage and the aforementioned screen has been designed by Mim Houghton to look surprisingly scruffy and little money seems to have been spent on costumes for those politicians who flit in and out – for example Maureen McTeer’s skirt (she was Clark’s wife). Lighting (Mark Dymock) is suitably bright but the sound design (Laura Alyousif), especially in the opening scene, is far too dominating and irritating, making it impossible to hear what was being said at times.

Recommended to those interested in and with a knowledge of Canadian politics.

3 Star Review

Review by John Groves

In May 1979, Progressive Conservative Joe Clark was elected as Canada’s youngest ever Prime Minister.

By Christmas 1979, it looked as though it was all over.

But Clark is young and idealistic, resolute on making his mark in office, and governing for the whole country, not just his own party supporters. Faced with a critical decision, his colleagues – including his predecessor Pierre Trudeau – take the opportunity to steer him in completely different directions…

As the UK heads into what will almost certainly be another General Election year, this fast-paced satirical political comedy is a dazzling insight into the rapidly changing world of Conservative party politics.

A European premiere from multi-award-winning playwright Michael Healey in his fourth production at the Finborough Theatre.

by Michael Healey
Tuesday, 2 January – Saturday, 27 January 2024

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  • John Groves

    John Groves studied singing with Robert Easton and conducting with Clive Timms. He was lucky enough to act in the British premiere of a Strindberg play at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe more years ago than he cares to remember, as well as singing at the Royal Opera House - once! He taught drama and music at several schools, as well as examining the practical aspects of GCSE and A level drama for many years. For twenty five years he has conducted a brass band as well as living on one of the highest points of East Sussex surrounded by woodland, deer, foxes and badgers, with kites and buzzards flying overhead.

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