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Photos: Bob Seary

POSTED: 24 MARCH 2010

Feelgood, by Alistair Beaton

New Theatre, Newtown, Sydney | Until 17 April

Writers use satire as a tool to expose faults in society, and humour as a mirror through which the world can look at itself. They wish to turn the world upside down and make people question their preconceived ideas about the way the world works. In this case it is the sordid world of the political machine — British at that.

Feelgood was written back in 2001, when Tony Blair’s New Labour had been in government for four years. Alistair Beaton’s play reflects the growing unease with the culture of spin. Beaton is one of England’s leading satirists and wrote for the television series Not the Nine O’Clock News, Spitting Image and Drop the Dead Donkey. His complex script reflects a knowledge of the backstage world of political conference first hand. It also reveals that he knows the politicians really well and the world they live in, which adds authenticity. However, on stage this authenticity is somewhat lost in translation.

The setting is a Brighton hotel, during the Labour Party’s annual conference. The play opens and centres on a bullying, press secretary, modelled on Alastair Campbell, Director of Communications and Strategy for the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, for six years.  He and the young speech-writing aid Paul (Jack Fairweather) are urgently trying to complete the strategic speech the PM needs to deliver to the party faithful. Nearly a decade on, and a couple of continents away the subject matter seems rather tame.

Eddie (Anthony Hunt) is Campbell, the play’s focus. He’s an intriguer/fixer, recovering alcoholic and a bully who knows all the secrets. When Eddie discovers that his ex-wife (Annette Van Roden), a journalist and voice of the left has uncovered a scandal, Eddie’s stress levels soar and the crisis deepens. Hunt struggles with the physical comedy needed to portray the manic aspect of Eddie’s character and situation and instead relies on explosive anger to communicate how far Eddie will go to keep himself and the party in power.

Off-stage, anti-capitalist environmentalists are rioting in the streets and on stage the scandal is revealed. A member of the party, and friend of the PM, has been conducting secret GM crop trials on his land. Worst, the genetically modified crops have found their way into the beer, with the bizarre side effect that male drinkers are developing female breasts. Unfortunately it takes too long for this scandal to come to fruition and the shift between bedroom farce and satirical indignation is poorly synthesised.

The performances, overall, do suggest the political situation and do manage to bring to life the intrigue, nastiness and vicious hypocrisy. There is a confident performance by Amy Anderson as the Prime Minister’s female Personal Assistant and Jack Fairweather’s Paul is energetic as Eddie’s off-sider. 

There are many satirical portrayals of Campbell on film and television — The Queen and The Government Inspector — are two that may be best known to Australian audiences. Feelgood won the Evening Standard award for best comedy and was nominated for an Olivier — a lot to live up to.

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