The Speechmaker, written by Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner and Rob Sitch (the team behind The Castle, Frontline and The Hollowmen) is a political satire set aboard Air Force One, which sees the President of the United States forced to deal with an ethical dilemma of global significance on the eve of a surprise Christmas visit to the British Prime Minister. It deals with America’s waning power, the ethical dilemmas of anti-terrorism measures and what they’ve warped into, and spoofs political television dramas like The West Wing. It would have felt pertinent and immediate if it’d made its way onstage a decade ago.
The Speechmaker is already one of Melbourne Theatre Company’s most successful productions in recent years (the season is all but sold-out) thanks to the profile of the writers and the cast involved (Erik Thomson from Packed to the Rafters and Kat Stewart, Lachy Hulme and Jane Harber from Offspring). But MTC has handed the reins of one of its biggest mainstage productions to untested writers for the theatre and, unsurprisingly, the script doesn’t fit the stage as well as it should.
There’s plenty of buffoonery performed perfectly by the cast, particularly in the first 20 minutes. We get the archetypal White House crew; the vain, dim, but ultimately well-meaning president (Erik Thomson), the tough-as-nails, rigid national security advisor (Jane Harber), the scheming speechwriter and image specialist (Toby Truslove), and the loyal, hard-working chief of staff (Nicholas Bell).
They’re all riding high on the success of the President’s latest speech, a rhetorical, and heart-warming address on “humanity”. As they set off on their flight to London, they learn of a plot to assassinate the leader of a European nation. Silliness ensues as the staff reveal how little they actually know about the geography and political climate of Europe.
But there’s a plot-twist at around 30 minutes in which shifts gear into more serious territory. Unfortunately, the action gets stuck on a particular ethical dilemma which gets repeated ad nauseam, without anything new being added, for a significant chunk of the 90-minute running time. There’s also scene change after scene change, which seems inexplicable when almost the entire play is set inside one plane.
Director Sam Strong and the cast of 10 do plenty of favours to the writers. The comic timing is so precise and the characters (or caricatures) are so sharply drawn, it’s difficult to imagine you could have had a better production of this play. Every joke lands.
Erik Thomson is particularly good as the President, bringing charm and passion to the fore in his opening scenes before sitting back and letting the audience see behind the charm. Nicholas Bell evokes Leo McGarry from The West Wing as the chief of staff. He shines in his secondary role as the British PM in a warm and fuzzy conversation with the US President.
Lachy Hulme does “devious” well as the under secretary of defence, but his character isn’t given a lot to do except for finger-tenting and making smug, evil faces. Kat Stewart brings energy and single-mindedness to her performance as the win-at-all-costs senior political advisor.
Jane Harber has drawn one of the best characters, with mannerisms as crisp as her pale grey pantsuit and perfectly coiffed bob as the national security adviser. Even her stiff-limbed walk consistently wins laughs.
Designer Dale Ferguson’s revolve gets a workout as the action shifts between the President’s office on board, the “board room” and cockpit. It’s a design which serves the episodic structure of the play and evokes the glossy sophistication of the presidential plane. But with the number of scene changes in the script, and the revolve constantly spinning, there’s a gag calling out to be made with West Wing walks.
The Speechmaker is one of MTC’s most obviously commercial ventures for years, being stacked with familiar faces and names from film and television. It’s unlikely that anybody will walk away too disappointed; there are laughs to be had and the performances are brilliant. But the script is seriously undercooked and not ready for the mainstage. And there are theatrical satirists out there who are ready for the mainstage and should have been given this opportunity.
Featured image by Jeff Busby