It was bad luck that on the first night of Party Tricks - Crispin Whittell's new satire about corruption in British politics and the media - one of the main actors was indisposed, leaving the director, Martin (Staggered, Men Behaving Badly) Clunes, with the unenviable task of having to go on for him, script in hand. I had never witnessed this phenomemon before, though certain examples have passed into legend. What one would one have given to be there the night Willy Russell stood in as Shirley Valentine or when author Terry Johnson had to strip off and do the nude sensate focussing scene in Dead Funny, an experience where holding a strategic sheath of A4 must have been oddly comforting.
Though he occasionally looks like a pin-striped Tory version of Eamonn Andrews about to spring a This Is Your Life on one of the other actors, Clunes acquitted himself well and it was even possible to imagine some artistic justification for the fact that he was reading the lines. Politicians' lamentable reliance on spin-doctors is one of the play's targets, so it's not inapt that one of them here was quite literally clinging to a script.
Crispin Whittell is an indecently young Cambridge graduate and this is his first full-length play. In a climate where established dramatists are lucky to get new work anywhere near the main stage of a regional rep, it's extraordinarily enterprising of Nottingham Playhouse to have snaffled up the prentice piece of an unknown. The gamble, though, only half pays off. Party Tricks is a curious mix of things that are a good laugh and things that are merely laughable and the ratio of the latter to the former increases as the evening wears on.
A minister for overseas development and Thatcher wannabe (Elizabeth Garvie) loses her portfolio (if not her seat) through a sex scandal with the French Minister for Internal Affairs. Before this debacle, any leadership contest after a Tory election defeat would have been fought between her and Wright, the President of the Board of Trade. Her image-managers (Rob Spendlove and Alexander Armstrong) need to re-establish her as a viable contender. It's a task made somewhat easier when they discover that an MP who has had a life-long crush on Wright (Clunes) has done a deal with Eddie (Danny Webb), the slimeball editor of an ailing tabloid, offering to wangle a takeover that will keep Eddie in place if he'll print what he is fed, that's to say, the Wright Stuff.
There are some decentish fast gags at the expense of political and media cynicism. Reflecting on the definition of a newspaper, Eddie says he loves the "paper" part, it's the "news" bit he has problems with, while one of the image-minders is prepared to expose his granny to physical injury in order to create a photo-opportunity that demonstrates the Diana-like compassion of his disgraced client. But the plot depends on glaring implausibilities like the idea that the English would be all credulous trust and require no shred of proof if a Max Clifford-figure experienced a moral conversion and decided, self-sacrificially, to bring down a villainous politician by claiming to have had a homosexual affair with him. At such points, Party Tricks is as cynical about the public as the professionals it attacks.
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