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Hansard review at National Theatre, London – ‘well-acted, but heavy-handed’

Lindsay Duncan and Alex Jennings in Hansard at National Theatre, London. Photo: Catherine Ashmore

It’s 1988. Margaret Thatcher is prime minister and Princess Di is still alive. Tory MP Robin Hesketh (Alex Jennings), educated at Eton and Oxford, is returning home to spend the weekend with his wife, Diana (Lindsay Duncan). It’s evident that things are strained between them – she suspects him of having an affair; he thinks that she drinks too much.

Hansard, the polished if restrained debut play by actor-turned-playwright Simon Woods, uses their marriage as a lens through which to explore the Tory mindset of the time – and, by extension, our time.

Robin calmly defends Thatcher’s policies: mining was an industry in decline before she got her hands on it, he says; the notorious anti-gay legislation Clause 28 was a way of shielding young people. Diana is an evidently intelligent woman, left-leaning in her personal politics and stuck in her husband’s shadow. She compensates by continually asking him to justify his political stance and teasingly enquiring whether Thatcher rewards him with a little pat on the bum for his obedience. But despite the bickering, this never ascends to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? levels of bitterness. Theirs remains a sedately dysfunctional relationship.

Woods – who also happens to be Eton and Oxford-educated – is good at conveying the sheen of privilege and the comfort blanket that comes when someone has never been faced with a door that wasn’t open to them, and has never been told “no”. The writing is superficially witty, but so loaded with hindsight it threatens to topple over. Diana ponders why “the natural party of government is supremely bad at it”. There are digs at identity politics, as well as the obligatory allusions to Brexit. There’s also a meta-joke about plays without intervals: this one runs to just under 90 minutes straight through.

Hildegard Bechtler’s set suggests a kind of creamy Home Counties comfort – there’s an Aga and a well-stocked drinks cabinet – while Duncan pairs a sage-green silk nightie with kitten heels, encapsulating her character to a tee. Both she and Jennings are very good at suggesting buried animosity but not outright hostility.

Though a couple of the jokes, about Aids and Margaret Tebbit’s paralysis, are darker and edgier in tone, most of the time the play goes for obvious laughs. In the final third, it shifts gears as the couple discuss the tragedy that has shaped their marriage, but this feels abrupt and unearned. The reveal does not feel as if it has been seeded throughout the play.

Simon Godwin’s production remains frustratingly clean throughout, even when it gets emotionally messy, and it doesn’t really concern itself with the extent of the damage done by Robin and his ilk, the continuing impact. Well-crafted and well-acted as the play is, it’s hard to warm to it. The fact that men of unthinking privilege still dominate our political landscape is no laughing matter.

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Well-acted but often heavy-handed play about a Tory marriage