The opening and closing sequence from The Absence of War
The opening and closing sequence from The Absence of War

The Absence of War. Bristol Old Vic.

Is George Jones going to win the election? Can Ed Milliband beat David Cameron in May? Would Trevor Fox manage to remember his lines? David Hare’s play inspired by Neil Kinnock’s failure to win the 1992 General Election had an extra twist in this performance when Reece Dinsdale who plays the leading role of Labour opposition leader took ill thrusting Trevor Fox into the role at the last minute. You would never have guessed it as his performance was flawless as he paced the stage and poured out his heart during the rigours of campaigning and sounding at times a bit like Terry in a more thoughtful version of The Likely Lads.

In 1992 John Major narrowly held off the challenge of Labour to win a modest Conservative majority. The result was a surprise as the polls predicted a small Labour win and it was the rally held by Neil Kinnock in Sheffield that seemed to some over-triumphant that commenters felt was the turning point. Whether that was the case perhaps we’ll never know but it did lead to a lot of soul searching and eventually a Labour Government under Tony Blair.

The Absence of War is a thumping good show. Slick, stylishly directed by Jeremy Herrin, with stunning lighting, sound and film to support a cast on top form. Bitching, back-biting and even fighting, the back room staff of would-be Prime Minister George Jones keep up a ferocious pace of dialogue, argument and angst ridden speeches from the moment Conservative Charles Kendrick (Don Gallagher) goes down the Mall to see the Queen.

The play hinges on Jones’ perceived character flaw of not connecting with the public on the big occasions. In private he’s witty and passionate, but goes bland and bombs in front of cameras. This weakness leads Jones to clash with his would-be chancellor Malcolm (Gyuri Sarossy) as election day looms in a testosterone fuelled encounter.

The drama is packed with great lines: Malcolm was far too disloyal to be disloyal we are told, election advisor Lindsay is a perfect member of the party as she manages to make four enemies in five minutes, and Labour stands for justice – but no two people can agree on what that means.

Maggie McCarthy as Jones’ secretary had some great one-liners and new how to time the jokes, James Harkness as his minder was early 90s man personified, Cyril Nri as an adviser upped the tempo when it was needed and Ameira Darwish as his press officer irritated brilliantly as the sycophantic flunky. Don Gallagher enjoyed himself as the vile Linus Frank and a word for Barry McCarthy who was brilliant as the old Labour front bencher.

It’s funny, punchy and comfort theatre for Guardian readers who look back to those far off pre-Blair days with affection when socialism was still used to describe policies and Margaret Thatcher had finally left office. Shouty politics and shouty theatre. The perfect warm-up for this May’s election.

Harry Mottram

4 stars

The play continues to Saturday

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