Since New Labour came to power in 1997, it has enacted well over 100,000 pages of legislation and created more than 3,000 new offences. One department on its own, the Home Office, has been responsible for around 60 Acts of Parliament. This tsunami-like wave of legislation and bureaucracy continues to gush from Westminster at an ever-increasing and alarming rate. How Joe Bloggs in the street is expected to keep up with all this is beyond me, and I suspect, almost everyone else in the country, apart from the lawyers who make their enormous fortunes by interpreting it for us as well as writing it in the first place.
The responsibility - or at least the legwork - for getting legislation through parliament rests not with the Prime Minister, as you might think, but with a shadowy group of MPs who act like prefects in a public school, rounding up and herding our Members of Parliament through the right voting lobbies at the right time, to ensure that what the Government wants done, gets done. These mysterious figures may not be known to a fraction of the nation by name, yet they wield enormous power and reputedly use dubious tactics to get their way. These people are the party 'Whips', and in Steve Thompson's play 'Whipping It Up' (originally commissioned by the Bush Theatre and now transferred to the West End after a sell-out original run) we get a taste of how the Whips operate, and it's not a pretty sight, nor one for the feint-hearted. Because these bully-boys will employ any means at their disposal in order to get wavering MPs to vote in the 'right' way. Promises of promotion, paying off bar bills, cajoling spouses, covering up sexual dalliances and open blackmail, are just a few of the ploys this band of political henchmen carry in their armoury and deploy at the drop of a hat.
The play is set in the Conservative Whips' Office - a cross between torture chamber and intelligence headquarters. In the corner, mute but ever-threatening, is an enormous safe - supposedly the repository of deadly 'evidence' which can be used as required to blackmail errant MPs into compliance. It's almost Christmas, and the new Conservative government have a tiny majority - which requires even tighter control of the footsoldiers by the Whips. The passage of a seemingly innocuous bill strangely arouses a small rebellion in the Conservative ranks, but as events unfold the situation mushrooms into the possibility of a leadership challenge and panic ensues. The Whips move swiftly into gear, playing a cat and mouse game with their opposite numbers in the Labour camp, threatening and charming their own troops, and preying unscrupulously on the immoral instincts of the press along the way.
Leader of this razor-tongued pack of political bully boys is the Chief Whip, Fulton, brilliantly played by the ever-excellent Richard Wilson. Expletives and bile pour from the terrier-like Fulton in an almost never-ending, cynical tide. They're frequently and pointedly directed at a junior member of his thuggish team to keep him in his place, or possibly to sharpen his skills. Fulton's a man for whom loyalty is everything, yet even he is ultimately sacrificed on the political pyre when his henchman are forced into disrupting the business of the house in a last-ditch bid to avoid defeat. In the end, someone has to pay when they're caught cheating - though the suggestion is that it would be perfectly OK if their tactics hadn't been discovered.
Deputy Chief Whip is Alastair (Robert Bathurst). He's a sickly smooth and slippery viper who one wouldn't trust with a hamster, let alone the legislation of the Mother of Parliaments. And he's assisted by Tim (Lee Ross) a Junior Whip whose father has an ample enough bank account to grease his son's political path. Though Tim is just as able (and eager) to do the 'dirty work' as his public school superiors, there's the glimmer of an uneasy alliance between the old guard upper class, and the newly rich from the suburbs, thanks to subtle direction by Tamara Harvey.
Helen Schlesinger (Deputy Opposition Chief Whip) provides wily feminine antagonism for the macho Conservatives, particularly as she's not only just as sharp in the political maneuvering department, but is also rather sexy too. And there's good support from Kellie Bright as a devious researcher for a national newspaper, and Nicholas Rowe as a virgin MP who's learning the ropes the hard way.
'Whipping It Up' has the same kind of feel as the superb BBC TV Series 'Yes Minister' which introduced us to the exclusive but highly idiosyncratic world of the Whitehall mandarins - the Civil Service. Steve Thompson's writing here is as at times as sharp and pointed as anything in 'Yes Minister', and the very able cast led by Wilson is every bit as believable. But there were instances when the comedy dimmed, and we seemed to be taken into moralising which occasionally bordered on lecturing.
On the whole, 'Whipping It Up' is chillingly satirical, though perhaps just a touch too real for comfort. In the dog-eat-dog world of politics it paints (and which we know exists) there really doesn't seem much room for reason, conviction or even the faintest modicum of decency. So, in spite of a well-executed and witty production, one leaves caring not a jot about any of these repulsive characters whose morals basically emanate from the gutter. No wonder that most people don't even bother to vote!
What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, “Farcically nuanced comedy...well-tuned production, Whipping It Up stings as it pleasures. ” SAM MARLOWE for THE TIMES says, "doesn’t have the teeth of really sharp satire, and dramatically speaking it’s unexciting. But it’s packed with coruscating dialogue, and though its serpentine plot perhaps takes a few twists too many, it springs some clever surprises along the way. "
External links to full reviews from popular press