Simon Woods’ debut play about a mediocre Tory Government Minister and his ultra-left wife is a delicious cocktail of angry ripostes, bitter memories , lost ambition, and political obsessions set in 1988 England.
The date is important because the magical Alex Jennings , as MP Robin Hesketh, is a key figure in the introduction of the much-despised Section 28 of the Local Government Act forbidding schools to promote or even discuss homosexuality with their pupils.
It’s Saturday and it’s Robin’s birthday at the family weekend Cotswold cottage – all bathed in creamy sunlight with a cosy Aga stove in the back wall. But rather like the highly dangerous-looking Bloody Mary Robin mixes onstage there’s a trap lying in wait for him from his bitter, unfulfilled wife Diane, played with venomous glee by Lindsay Duncan.
The two characters have verbal crossfire worthy of Albee or Coward . He has a passionate hatred of Labour and all things liberal-minded; she hates what she sees as the petty , squalid , uncaring dogmatism of the Tory ruling class.
Both actors are on top form in this 90 minute battle of the sexes and intellects. One lobs a verbal hand grenade at the other only to have it lobbed back, detonating at their feet.
Woods is brilliant at throw-away one-liners which resonated well with the Brexit-weary audience. She asks why is it that the natural party of Government is inherently bad at it. His hatred of “ book readers and theatregoers “ is matched by his loathing and disdain for the Labour opposition front bench – “ badly dressed geography teachers” he calls them.
His unconscious irony is never better displayed than his assertion that “ you can’t go around telling children they can be whatever they want to be in life “ . This is the heart of Woods’ polemic . The wife queries – is the Government catching the mood of the electorate or creating it ? Sounds a bit topical to me !
Margaret Thatcher is the unseen Godot of this play . Robin lovingly if blindly defends her apparent uncaring nature – Diane rips into her with a verbal chainsaw taking no prisoners.
Toryism is simple for Robin “ people don’t want the world to change. They want to feel safe and in the majority. “
When a startling revelation about their dead teenage son is disclosed in the play’s closing moments , it’s as if a great boil has been lanced and a sad peace descends on the household.
Jennings, sharp but world-weary and Duncan , lashing tongue and devastating looks are utterly brilliant.
It’s a story of squandered lives and unhappy compromises – fit for our times.
Hansard runs in repertoire at the National Theatre, London until 25 November .