Politicians in the real election on 7 May will be hoping that voters clamour to the polls with the same enthusiasm shown by the several thousand people who have applied for tickets to this unique collaboration between London’s Donmar Warehouse and More4.
Author James Graham (the man behind Channel 4 political drama Coalition) and Donmar artistic director Josie Rourke have assembled a cast of epic proportions (including Mark Gatiss, Catherine Tate, Judi Dench, Nina Sosanya and Timothy West) for a comedy set in a fictitious polling station of a very marginal constituency during the last 90 minutes of the 2015 general election.
If wrangling a cast of over 40 into a smooth narrative didn’t present enough of a logistical challenge in the Donmar’s intimate space, the creative team have undertaken to broadcast the final night of the play’s run (election day) live on More4 in real time, finishing exactly as the bongs of Big Ben strike ten and the polls close. Opening night saw them cross the line four seconds early – it needs to be timed with that sort of precision.
Gatiss, Tate and Sosanya are at the heart of the piece. Starring as three officials manning the polling station in a school gymnasium, they are on stage pretty much continually as the star cameos file through as voters.
A clerical mix-up surrounding West’s character throws the place into chaos, and things get more farcical as every idea that the well-meaning but hapless Tate offers to rectify or cover up the mistake flounders, driving Gatiss to the point of breakdown.
It’s all tremendous fun and the three leads are on excellent form, while the subplots involving the stream of guest stars are woven into the play seamlessly and the characters, however brief their turn, beautifully drawn. Two chavvy schoolgirls old enough to vote but totally failing to examine their options beforehand feels a bit easy, until you realise how depressingly accurate they probably are. Graham leaves us to decide whether it’s their fault or that of the politicians for failing to engage first-time voters.
Real-life mother and daughter Judi Dench and Finty Williams feature as a mother and daughter whose bickering pushes the beleaguered Gatiss even closer to the edge; MyAnna Buring is a voracious journalist who senses a story; Bill Paterson is a gruff caretaker; and there’s a hilarious cameo from Paul Chahidi as an independent candidate fighting plans for a new one-way system.
Within the high farce, Graham still manages to make some pertinent points but deftly stays within the rules for broadcasting during a general election campaign. The closest we get to real passion is when a nearly broken Gatiss desperately appeals for people to at least show some respect for the process itself.
Because of commercial breaks, the theatre audience will get to see a little more than those at home because Graham and Rourke have had to create some neatly timed bits of business to fill in the ad space. Sadly, I fear that a delightful sequence involving Gatiss and Sosanya sneaking a go on the school hula hoops might have to be saved for later on YouTube. Ad breaks aside, though, this is a hugely satisfying taster for the drama, or possibly farce, that follows immediately afterwards.