1979 review – Finborough Theatre, London

Joseph May in 1979. Photo: Simon Annand

Despite arriving at seemingly the perfect moment with the UK heading into an election year and with major elections across the world in Canada, the US and India, Canadian playwright Michael Healey’s satirical political comedy 1979, about the short-lived tenure of Canadian Prime Minister Joe Clark, fails to live up to its potential in its European premiere at London’s Finborough Theatre. The Progressive Conservatives party leader Joe Clark (Joseph May) has been in office for just months after a surprise victory over Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal Party. However, the Canadian people have only supplied him with a minority government, and therefore he has no working majority to deliver the policies he has promised.

We meet Clark in his office, cleverly designed by Mim Houghton to maximise Finborough Theatre’s intimate space, on the day he and his Minister of Finance John Crosbie are attempting to deliver their first budget. The budget vote is doomed to fail unless Clarke compromises on his own politics to win votes from other parties to get it through Parliament. From there, a rotating cast of characters, all played by Ian Porter and Samantha Coughlan, come and go from Clark’s office, each appealing to different elements of his personality. His wife, Maureen McTeer, bemoans the sexist environment she has been landed in and identifies his outsider status, his foe Trudeau attacks Clark’s lack of character, and a parliamentary worker, and the future Conservative Party of Canada Prime Minister Stephen Harper, appears in an imagined interaction (Harper didn’t work in Parliament at the time) to question Clark’s fundamental approach to political versus policy.

The rotating interactions make the 80-minute play feel like a series of vignettes, though director Jimmy Walters’ adds coherence where there is a risk of confusion. But there is little to no progression of Clark’s character – he remains steadfast in his opinions and his approach. It may be admirable but it doesn’t create a compelling dramatic narrative. That is further impacted by the use of a projector that imparts Canadian political context for a UK audience that has no knowledge of the events of the play. Though it is used to great effect for some comic moments, the majority of the time the text is either overlong, moves too quickly or appears while the characters are speaking – meaning a choice between catching either the action or the text.

Joseph May, the only member of the cast to play one character throughout, is excellent as Clark, though he is stifled by the lack of his character’s development in the text, and Porter is entertaining in his various incarnations including as a chainsaw-wielding Trudeau (father of current Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau). Some surprising stumbling over lines throughout by Coughlan, perhaps a consequence of the play opening just a few days into the new year, removes some of the momentum. It is particularly noticeable in the interaction between Clark and Harper, a sequence that is already heavy-handed in its writing. Healey’s inclusion of a subplot involving the Canadian Caper, a joint operation between the CIA and Canada to rescue six US diplomats in Iran (later made into the film Argo), adds little and goes nowhere, which, unfortunately, feels much like a summary of Clark’s political career, and the play.

1979 is at Finborough Theatre until 27 January 2024

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