The Vote (live broadcast, More4)
With an hour and half on the clock until the polls closed yesterday, More4 broadcast the final performance of James Graham’s The Vote – already reviewed here by Mark Shenton – as it was being staged live at London’s Donmar Warehouse.
Conceived by Graham along with director Josie Rourke as a play for both theatre and television, it exists somewhere in the space between the two. Its episodic structure is probably better suited to television in many ways, an easy thing to dip in and out of (to pop to the loo, say, or fix a gin) and this also enables the performers to accommodate commercial breaks without disrupting the flow of the storytelling.
Set in a polling station in a London marginal seat, The Vote features Catherine Tate and Nina Sosanya as polling clerks, with Mark Gatiss as their slightly uptight supervisor. Though the cast is chock-full of well-known faces, most of the roles are essentially cameos (including an unexpected but brilliantly throwaway appearance from Jude Law), as actors play voters who come and make their mark, or at least try to, and just as quickly leave.
The characters are, in the main, familiar types: two excitable teenage girls, a harried businessman, a feuding mother and daughter, a slightly doddery elderly man who may have voted twice – a situation that leads to Tate’s character resorting to fraud in order to resolve.
There’s not much room for nuance here – the tone is pretty sitcom-esque at times, particularly in the opening moments – but of everyone it’s Gatiss who gets the balance just right. His gentle, humble performance has this appealing air of integrity and melancholy, enhanced somehow by his faintly ratty moustache; he’s the heart of the play, a man to whom the process matters deeply.
The same is clearly true of Graham and the play is littered with detail about how the system operates, the rules and the quiet might of the ballot. In focusing on the tiny but potent act of making a cross on a piece of paper – in pencil, “just like in the 1990s”, as one of the teenagers remarks before whipping out her iPhone – Graham gradually shapes all these small dramas into something larger, though it must be said that the play benefits greatly from rolling out in real time on the day in question, the tension building as the clock ticks towards 10pm.
As an experiment in simultaneous broadcast, it works pretty smoothly for the most part, though the sheer number of characters means some moments get swallowed up onscreen, Stephen Kennedy’s sad-eyed turn being one of them.
The camera operators are occasionally caught on the hoof too, mainly chasing Dench about. The compact nature of the Donmar stage means the audience is more visible than in more conventional screened performances – at some moments, we watch the faces of the people watching, which seems more telling than was perhaps intended – but as a way of opening theatre up and engaging with what’s happening in the world as it’s happening, it’s surprisingly effective.