THEATRE / The body politic: Paul Taylor on Johnny on a Spot at the Olivier

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The Independent Culture
With Johnny on a Spot, Richard Eyre produces his second play in a row to deal with an election campaign. There are sizeable differences, though, between Charles MacArthur's 1942 farce and David Hare's Absence of War. For a start, while the Kinnock figure in the latter might be deemed tragic, he still had his health, which is more than can be said about Governor Upjohn, the boozy, genially crooked southern candidate for the Senate in Johnny on a Spot. In fact, he's just croaked in a whore house. Can the news of his demise be concealed until after the count?

This reductio ad absurdum of the cover-ups that are still such a feature of American politics should give the piece a piquant timeliness. You gradually realise, though, that you are watching two cover- ups: the one in the plot and the one gamely undertaken by Eyre's bright cast. They try to shield you from the awful truth that this is a disappointingly under-driven farce, short on laughs and so lacking in a moral viewpoint that the compromise deal done at the end invalidates much of the foregoing fuss.

Mark Strong and Janie Dee are both excellent in the central roles, he as Nicky Allen, the quick-thinking campaign manager, she as Julie Glynn, the capable secretary who is usually one step ahead of everyone. But in a properly energised farce the masterminds need to be motivated by something more galvanising than niceness. Nicky orchestrates the cover- up out of fondness for the departed Johnny; Julie helps him because she doesn't want to see her future husband hauled off to the slammer. Neither of them is exactly dangling by a thread over an abyss of humiliation.

Johnny's corrupt chums fit the bill better on that one. James Grout's amusingly slow Judge and Colin Stinton's venal-visaged Chief of Urban Affairs have been siphoning off funds intended for the construction of a maternity hospital. Not that this stops them from being self- righteous. I particularly enjoyed Stinton's sniffiness about pregnancy, as though there were something so inherently underhand about the condition that it lets him off the hook. There's also some nicely managed comedy when they offer to release a convicted forger if he'll fake a signature for them, only to discover that, in prison, he's become a sanctimonious born-again Christian.

In general, though, despite the large cast, lavish set, and the fact that our heroes are up against reporters from a rival paper, a broad out to revenge a grievance, and a corpse that keeps going missing, this farce never gives the elating impression of being fought on an impossible number of fronts. MacArthur co-wrote that much funnier piece The Front Page; Johnny, his only solo play, is more a case of 'hold the back page'.