The opening moments of Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky’s Coalition feel almost unnecessarily cruel. This is a play which charts the imagined downfall of a figure very much like Nick Clegg; yet. now, nearly three years on from the formation of the coalition, Clegg has become a man so miserable-looking that his skin seems to hang heavier every day, as if it was trying to escape from his own face. In fact, he seems more and more to resemble a melancholy Spitting Image puppet version himself, providing a reminder of a time when it was easier to figure out who the good guys were and the bad guys were always the Tories. And this is the crux of the play, the source of its anger, of its funniest moments as well as its more poignant ones: Nick Clegg was supposed to have been one of the good guys, wasn’t he?
Khan and Salinsky present to us with a thinly veiled version of the current cabinet in the not-too-distant-future. Four years into the coalition government’s rule, Lib Dem leader and Deputy Prime Minister Matt Cooper is fighting to reunite the scattered factions of his party, with the manic desperation of a man who knows he is doomed to failure. Cooper is played with appropriate mania, a combination of delicate physical comedy and lashings of knowing bastardry by Thom Tuck, Fosters Comedy Award nominee and one third of the Penny Dreadfuls.
Tuck has a slight tendency to fumble lines, especially when the dialogue comes thick and fast, which can make the play feel a little under-rehearsed, but he throws himself into the role with such gusto that it soon ceases to matter. Cooper young aide, Claudia, is played in a suitably heartfelt manner by Jessica Regan, and the scenes between the two of them zip along at a remarkable pace: in one instance, they manage to hold several telephone conversations between them, swapping mobile for landline for mobile in a scene as well-choreographed as any dance.
Tuck and Regan are accompanied by a strong cast, including Jo Caulfield, wonderfully dry as Lib Dem Chief Whip Angela Hornby, and a wilfully ridiculous Phill Jupitus as Sir Francis Whitford. Both are very funny, though Jupitus seems a little miscast at times. Whitford is the classic old guard Tory MP, who somehow continues not only to exist in the 21st century but to hold a position of genuine power in spite of the fact that he is out of touch, out of date and holds a deep disdain for the vast majority of the populus. Though he struggles to maintain his accent at times, Jupitus wrings the maximum possible amount of humour out of the character, but there are times where his Whitford seems a little too likeable a cliché, an Uncle Monty figure, not so much a dusty relic as a handsome antique. What is missing from this performance is the edge of danger, the horror we should feel at realising that it is men like Whitford, truly, who still hold the reigns of this country in their piggy little fingers.
This could all stand to make Coalition feel like satire without much bite, but Khan and Salinsky do still have something to say and the script is packed with smart lines, well-delivered: it takes brave people to write sweary politicians post-The Thick of It, but they prove themselves up to the task. In this slick, well-judged production, there is a nightmarish quality to the way things crumble around Cooper that never stretches credibility. In fact, it all feels horribly believable. As Cooper’s allies finally begin to turn on him, their heartfelt accusations of having been so let down by somebody with so much promise seem to chime with the mood in the room. It is strangely moving, as is the very real pathos Tuck brings to the role of Cooper.