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A Political Satire with A Bite

3 minute read
HELEN GIBSON / London

If New Labour feels bad about Feelgood, it should hardly be surprising, given the government’s obsession with appearances and the play’s central London opening just before a general election. Tony Blair may enjoy a thumping majority in opinion polls, but it’s still a bad time to have a satire about the government hit the West End. Worse yet that it’s playing to full houses. Worst of all that it’s so bitingly, tellingly cynical.

There is no doubt about who or which party is being lampooned. Feelgood’s Prime Minister, known to his inner circle as D.L. — it stands for Divine Light or, in moments of disillusion, Dreadfully Lightweight — appears only briefly on stage to give a speech before a party conference at the end. But D.L. is so very Blair that actor Jonathan Cullen need only say a few words to draw a laugh. The address itself, larded with fake sincerity and sonorous, vacuous phrases, is such a merciless parody of a Blair speech that one almost feels sorry for him.

The play’s main focus is not the P.M. but his menacing, manically manipulative press spokesman Eddie. He seems to be a combination — outrageously caricatured, of course — of Blair’s real-life media molder Alastair Campbell, who has a reputation for bullying journalists and ministers alike, and former minister, Blair confidant and master spin doctor Peter Mandelson.

The comedy is set in a seaside hotel on the eve of D.L.’s party conference big speech — Eddie is helping the speechwriter. In between the writing and the address itself he deals with all manner of crises: an off-message conference speaker, the threat that an item unflattering to D.L. will head the evening news. The most troubling involves one of D.L.’s cronies, now a cabinet minister, who has been involved in secret trials of genetically modified hops. Eddie’s left-wing journalist ex-wife is threatening to reveal that the resulting, inadvertently released beer has shrunk men’s penises and given them breasts. Eddie frenetically spins, lies, bribes and blackmails — there’s even a hint of murder — in a fast-paced, compelling performance guaranteed to entertain even those unfamiliar with insider British politics.

Labour-voting playwright Alistair Beaton certainly knows his subject. A contributor to the satirical British TV series Spitting Image, Beaton has covered party conferences for the bbc — in a satirical vein, of course — and has even written gags for dour Chancellor Gordon Brown.

Blair could, in fact, use Beaton’s talents for rooting out anything that may seem phony. The P.M. kicked off his campaign last week with a speech at a church school, backed by stained-glass windows, crucifix and hymn-singing schoolgirls; the performance was blasted by the press as “deeply cynical,” “disturbing” and “nauseating.” Feelgood suddenly seemed gentle by comparison.

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