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Review of Hansard – a new play by Simon Woods at the Lyttelton Theatre

Alex Jennings (Robin), Lindsay Duncan (Diana) in Hansard by Simon Woods, image Catherine Ashmore.
Alex Jennings (Robin), Lindsay Duncan (Diana) in Hansard by Simon Woods, image Catherine Ashmore.

Watching this play just hours after the government of the day loses its House of Commons working majority, Diana Hesketh’s (Lindsay Duncan) observation in Hansard about an expensive education not necessarily being indicative of having a good understanding of the world at large seemed particularly striking. As was her husband Robin (Alex Jennings) comparing Labour Party leaders too “badly dressed geography teachers” – the play is set in 1988 (Saturday 28 May, to be precise: a bank holiday weekend) and he namedrops the likes of Neil Kinnock and Michael Foot, but the play subtly makes it evident that we appear to have come full circle in 2019.

I mustn’t, of course, turn a review of a theatrical production into a political discussion, especially when the play is fundamentally more personal than parliamentary. Robin, a Conservative MP on the Agriculture and Fisheries Select Committee (or so he says), holds the sort of views that haven’t aged well by contemporary standards. Robin’s world, at least while he is out of the Westminster bubble, is a little like the old standards of the 1988 comedy film Pleasantville before sweeping changes come about. It is strongly implied, for instance, that Diana should have slaved away in the kitchen in preparation for luncheon as they have guests coming around. That she is still in a dressing gown when it has gone past 11:00am is also frowned on, but there is no attempt to find out why it is that lunch isn’t prepared or why she isn’t dressed.

When the explanations are provided, they turn out to be perfectly rational. It seems a little contrived that so much information and secrets are divulged all in one morning – after all, as Robin points out, he drives across from Westminster every single weekend, doing battle with the Hanger Lane Gyratory and the A40. Which straw broke the proverbial camel’s back would be giving too much away, though there is an acerbic wit on both parties in this relationship that embodies the old adage about marriage comprising three rings: the engagement ring, the wedding ring, and the long suffering.

As the whole play, which runs without an interval, is set in the front room of the Hesketh’s Oxfordshire home, the lighting remains more or less constant – a curtain is opened late on in proceedings, but otherwise, there are no significant changes. With the set filling the large Lyttelton stage quite nicely, depending on one’s vantage point, some of the dialogue can feel like watching a tennis match in person, with Diana stage right and Robin stage left, speaking across a vast expanse. I’m fairly certain there’s meant to be a metaphor there about how far apart they have drifted as a couple.

It’s a broad conversation, encompassing everything from why Robin can’t stand the theatre to how Margaret Thatcher worked her way into Downing Street. Diana gives some excellent insights into why it is that Thatcher came across as so punctilious, but later she is caught somewhat unaware by a revelation from Robin. It is nothing scandalous or improper – which is refreshing, given how quite a few politicians have behaved. The play’s title is derived from Robin’s wish to be remembered in some way – at least the House of Commons Library will have a perpetual record of his speeches and remarks in the Commons chamber.

For a debut play, it’s a good effort from Simon Woods, whose script balances various political and personal slants. The sometimes vicious sarcasm throughout makes both characters dislikeable, at least until the final ten minutes or so, and yet, because it is so genuinely witty, it is also disarming. At the time of writing, the vast majority of performances for the National Theatre run have sold out, but Hansard is part of the National Theatre Live series, broadcasting to cinemas on 7 November 2019. There’s some excellent acting in this intriguing and combative production.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

It’s a summer’s morning in 1988 and Tory politician Robin Hesketh has returned home to the idyllic Cotswold house he shares with his wife of 30 years, Diana. But all is not as blissful as it seems. Diana has a stinking hangover, a fox is destroying the garden, and secrets are being dug up all over the place. As the day draws on, what starts as gentle ribbing and the familiar rhythms of marital sparring quickly turns to blood-sport.

A witty and devastating new play.

Cast:
Rowena Bentley
Lindsay Duncan
Alex Jennings
Geoffrey Towers

Production Team
Director – Simon Godwin
Set and Costume Designer – Hildegard Bechtler
Lighting Designer – Jackie Shemesh
Music – Michael Bruce
Sound Designer – Christopher Shutt
Movement Director – Shelley Maxwell
Company Voice Work – Jeannette Nelson
Video Content – Isaac Madge
Associate Director – Emily Burns

Hansard
a new play by Simon Woods
Now playing
Running Time: approx. 1 hour 20 mins (with no interval)

Lyttelton Theatre
https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/

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