Even as Andrew Lloyd Webber is about to re-visit a serious parliamentary scandal of the 1960s in his new musical Stephen Ward, the West End has also delivered a new and riotously funny play about a much more recent one: the expenses scandal that engulfed MPs in 2009 when the Daily Telegraph received and started publishing the uncensored expenses claims of all 646 members of parliament. These included claims for glitter toilet seats, hanging baskets, a massage chair, bags of horse manure and a duck house (as well as for second homes they weren't themselves occupying and secretarial support from wives that couldn't type).
All of these, and more, are being claimed by Ben Miller's fictitious Labour MP Robert Houston in this debut play by TV writers Colin Swash and Dan Patterson, whose work has included such topical shows as Have I Got News for You and Mock the Week. And if the world of politics has moved relentlessly on, their comic revisiting of those events that created a climate of distrust around politicians wanting to feather their own nests (as well as those of the ducks in their gardens) provides rich material for a genuinely hilarious contemporary political comedy.
Foreign visitors may not get all the references, of course, but the comedy has a vivid comic propulsion all of its own that makes it funny in its own right. That it all seems too preposterous to be true is all part of the joke. Swash and Patterson have mercilessly mined the headlines to create a composite portrait of parliamentary dishonesty that is the essence of real satire. There hasn't been a play that echoes so resonantly and relentlessly against the current political landscape since Alistair Beaton's Feelgood that was seen at Hampstead in 2000.
Director Terry Johnson, who is a masterful comic writer himself of plays like Dead Funny, gets the pitch and pace just right. There's a relentless momentum to the story of the MP -- who is in the process of trying to defect to the Tories -- being visited at home for vetting by a Tory grandee Sir Norman Cavendish (Simon Shepherd). His wife, son and Russian domestic servant Ludmilla (who is working without a work permit - but is heavily resistant to further immigration) all have their own agendas. As played by the ever-cool Nancy Carroll, James Musgrave and Debbie Chazen, comedy gold is guaranteed.
The West End is a brighter, funnier place for this play that recalls the spirit of Ray Cooney, too long absent from our stages. Next to the feeble (and borderline offensive) Yes, Prime Minister, here's a political comedy with serious bite and balls.
"... a ripely entertaining production that goes down a treat ... This is political satire that uses a bludgeon, rather than a scalpel."
Charles Spencer for The Telegraph
"... a breezy, essentially good-natured farce ..."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"Though a few scenes are riotous, overall there’s not quite enough here to ravish audiences."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard