Billed as a play for theatre and television, the Donmar’s latest project is more audacious in conception than it is in execution. After two weeks of what are effectively previews in front of a theatre audience, it is using its final performance ticket holders as a studio audience for what harks back to the old days of live television drama, simultaneously transmitted by More4. There’s an extra charge and novelty to the fact that the play is set in the last 90 minutes of polling day for a general election, and it is precisely at that time on May 7 that the live broadcast is taking place.
But the play James Graham has fashioned for this, set in the school gym polling station of a key marginal constituency in London’s Lambeth, is hardly topical or otherwise revolutionary in shape or form. In fact, Graham – who made keen work of the inner machinations of the House of Commons in This House, his play based on real-life government and staged at the National – creates a completely fictionalised account of the election day traffic at this polling station where the drama, such as it is, is entirely manufactured.
Has Timothy West’s doddery old pensioner double voted? Can Hadley Fraser’s plastered, suited city boy wander off to the pub with his ballot paper to decide who to cast his vote for there? Has Paul Chahidi, as an independent candidate standing on a platform against one-way systems, wrongly punctuated his manifesto? And have Judi Dench and Finty Williams, real-life mother and daughter playing a fictional mother and daughter, only registered for one vote between them?
It’s tough to make much of a drama out of a succession of tiny events. “Nothing extraordinary ever happens,” one character who works at the polling station is heard exclaiming. And that’s about right, even though something momentous does unravel from this ancient democratic right to mark a ballot paper with a pencil and post it into a sealed box. The real story is who gets to rule us for the next five years, a plot that unravels from the small private act of casting a vote; but since the play closes with the polls, we never get to find out what the outcome is.
Josie Rourke’s production manages, however, to achieve its own dramatic momentum in a rush against an online clock, and parades a 40-plus strong cast to provide a regular trickle of traffic through the polling station. Only a handful of characters, who are manning the place – Catherine Tate and Nina Sosanya as polling desk clerks and Mark Gatiss as the officer in charge of the station – have much sustained stage time; others pass by in the blink of an eye.
The result is enjoyable enough, but it’s more Ayckbourn than David Hare in its dealings with deeper democratic issues. Two young girls, voting for the first time, ask Siri for suggestions about who to vote for. Graham’s own last Donmar show, Privacy, suggested that your phone already knows a lot about you. Apparently now it can tell you how to vote, too.