Elected in 1979, Joe Clark (Joseph May) was Prime Minister of Canada for just 273 days. In a more modern context, that is around five and a half Liz Trusses.
It is budget day and Clark’s minority government has no way to pass its budget. They are certain to lose a vote that evening, with even a number of their own party not prepared to show up and vote in favour. Clark is shown to have an inflexible need to do what he believes is right. He could, as Prime Minister, just abandon the vote and thus remain in power. This isn’t for him though; he believes that having won the election, he has the moral right to govern, and his budget should be passed.
In the hours prior to the vote, Samantha Coughlan and Ian Porter play a wide range of characters (sometimes even the same character) coming in to discuss, cajole, threaten or update the PM. Porter shines as Pierre Trudeau, both the preceeding and – spoiler alert – succeeding Prime Minister (also father of current Canadian PM Justin Trudeau). His lesson in abject power and politics is entirely lost on the wilfully naive Clark, and some of the comedy around playing politics with serious matters feels reminiscent of The Thick Of It and provides many laughs.
Productions at the Finborough are always notable for set design and this, by Mim Houghton, is no exception. 1979 is set entirely in the Prime Minister’s office. A simple arrangement of desk and chairs looks functionally elegant, and a well thought out coat of paint allows the normal walls to act as the office backdrop. Above the set is a screen which starts with a very dry introduction to the Canadian politics of the time, including numbers of government and opposition and vote totals. It is very, very dry and at times feels like a Wikipedia entry. It also throws up information very quickly, making it a challenge to follow both the dialogue and the text. Thankfully, and quite humorously, once the context is set this becomes a bit meta, breaking the fourth wall and joking with the audience but still feeling a little rushed.
There are decent laughs in 1979 but where I found the play most successful was in making me feel for, essentially, a Tory. There is talk of admiration for Margaret Thatcher (who had recently come to power in a landslide in the UK) and conservative policies. Just recently Keir Starmer got a lot of stick for saying something positive about Margaret Thatcher, so having sympathy for this Tory who blindly and naively lays everything on the line for his integrity (misguided as it may be to others), is something I can’t imagine ever feeling for, oh I don’t know… Liz Truss for example. Part of this is also down to May’s portrayal. Despite playing Clark as the almost anonymous, brown-suited nobody, May still brings a level of charisma and leadership and overall likeability. Then again, all of our politicians, from the very worst to the very best, well they must all have something, right? Why else would people vote for them?
While exposition heavy, 1979 leaves you to make up your own mind. Was Clark just wilfully naive, in over his head and unfit for office, or was he a politician of integrity who did what he believed was the right thing, no matter the consequences for him and for his party? I did spend the train ride home reading up on Canadian politics of the time…
Written by: Michael Healey
Directed by: Jimmy Walters
Set Design by: Mim Houghton
1979 plays at Finborough Theatre until 27 January. Further information and tickets can be found here.