Tim Walker has been tramping up and down Fleet St – the actual Street of Shame and more recently in its digital halls – for most of his working life. He had long stints at the Daily Mail and 12 years at the Daily Telegraph, with Boris Johnson a newsroom colleague. These days, Walker is well known for his Mandrake column and theatre reviews in The New European. His first play, Bloody Difficult Women, is enormous fun. Go. You’ll laugh and weep and ask yourself essential questions about this troubled United Kingdom.
Walker’s pen sees the dusty subjects of the law and politics become rich entertainment performed by a sure-footed cast. And there all the time is the fourth estate – the British press in the form of the “potty-mouthed” Daily Mail editor, Paul Dacre (Andrew Woodall). Woodall gives us a Dacre of messianic zeal, determined to deploy all the resources of his paper to “Get Brexit done”. Only when in the company of the prim Theresa May (Jessica Turner) does this Dacre curtail his swearing. Everyone else – colleagues, ministers and officials, anyone on the Left, the EU, and especially Remainers and their perceived establishment supporters – gets the full lexicon of Fs, and Cs, delivered in a variety of original ways.
Bloody Difficult Women tells the story of when the businesswoman, Gina Miller (Rita Estevanovich), challenged the legality of Prime Minister May’s proroguing of parliament. May’s action would prevent a parliamentary debate and vote over the execution of Article 50 of the European Union Act.
Gina Miller was fair game for Dacre’s Daily Mail
Miller eventually won the case, but the UK still exited Europe and soon after, May exited Downing Street. Miller though is the hero of the play. She took on the might of government, Brexit-loving newspapers and powerful men. Men who doubted her right to speak out and men who resented smart, powerful women. It was a brave, bruising, sometimes frightening and often viscerally cruel experience for Miller. Her life, her wealth, her family, her highs and some very low lows, were exposed to public gaze as a result of Miller standing up for what she saw as right. In the world of Dacre’s Daily Mail, Miller was fair game. She was the enemy. Another bloody difficult woman.
Rita Estevanovich as Gina Miller, faultlessly reveals Miller’s fire, determination, moral certainty and intellectual grasp. She delivers the searing pain of publicly reliving sexual abuse and personal tragedy. In the play’s final scene, she and May meet (an entirely fictitious event). Jessica Turner as May gives us a nervous, isolated, uncertain and occasionally paranoid prime minister. Turner is perhaps too warm a personality herself to adequately carry off May’s prickliness, but she captured something of the sense of the loneliness of high office and of May’s distrust of all but a very few favoured political advisers.
I thought there was more to be made of the Miller/May encounter. Each steps warily at first, then there is a frosty exchange before the two women embrace; if not in friendship, then as maybe an expression of the damage the whole Brexit business had done to them, the country and the new lows seen in Fleet Street. May, for all her poor management of Brexit, was and is a woman of integrity. Like Miller, she made it in a man’s world. I’d like to have seen these two strong women delve deeper into what they thought power is for. Might women see power differently from men?
A hierarchy of power driven by force of personality
Bloody Difficult Women demonstrates Walker’s understanding of the village that is establishment London. It can be a claustrophobic place that is entirely alien and unwelcoming to outsiders. Director Stephen Unwin takes full advantage of Nicky Shaw’s set design to push his actors to the edge of the stage. They are the most powerful in the land and we sense a hierarchy of power driven more by force of personality, political expediency and party politics, than by the rule of law or constitutional convention. The cast is in our faces. We are in the corridors of power.
These characters can be huge and intimidating, frightened and crushed, scheming and venal, weaselly and oily, witty and sharp. All humanity exists in the Westminster Village. We get to be flies on the wall of great events.
Every Dacre will have his day
Towering over the whole production is Woodall’s Dacre, one of the most successful newspapermen of his time. His success at the Mail has brought him great wealth. As Walker’s Miller explains to her stage husband Alan (Adam Jackson-Smith), Dacre has homes in London, estates in East Sussex and Scotland and a home in the British Virgin Islands.
The ordinary boy from an ordinary north London home got to the top of his trade. It gave him assured access to prime ministers. He is said to be shy and dislikes big gatherings. His money allowed him to send his sons to Eton, a fact he tetchily advises the play’s May of when she expresses frustration with the power of Eton. The school had produced both her predecessor, David Cameron, and her eventual successor Boris Johnson, then her foreign secretary who was barely disguising his lust for her job. The knowledge that Dacre’s boys had gone to Eton seems to deflate May. Her shoulders slump as she realises, she – the grammar school girly swot – is surrounded by people who are not like her.
Dacre transformed what was once a paper “Made by office boys for office boys”, into a titan of populist right-wing journalism. He understands his readers and while he’s no longer editor of the paper, he’s still a very powerful executive. He believes he thinks like his readers and shares their aspirations and values of what it is to be British: unquestioning support for the Queen, traditional family life of 2.4 well-behaved children, suspicion of foreigners and, do we sense, reservations about multi-cultural Britain?
Brexit – the most profound tragedy of our times – was probably Fleet Street’s last great hurrah. For all its entertainment value – and it’s well worth the ticket price – Bloody Difficult Women is the tale of Britain gone wrong. The Britain treated as a personal fiefdom by Dacre and a plaything by Johnson. Soon it looks to be Liz Truss’s Britain, one weakened in wealth, global status, constitution and, above all, weakened in dependability.
Our word is no longer our bond.
The greatest tragedy of them all
Two actors – Graham Seed, who plays the prime minister’s chief civil service mandarin, Sir Hugh Rosen, and George Jones, playing the young, handsome and up-and-coming Whitehall apparatchik Max Guilden – complete a worthy cast. The sub plot of the older and gay Rosen attempting to seduce the heterosexual Guilden seemed all rather forced. If it were a metaphor for something it missed me entirely. Dropping this strand would knock a few minutes off a play that could do with a bit of tightening of dialogue and length.
Jones also plays Dacre’s faithful deputy. Speaking in a version of Cockney slang that mystifies Dacre, Jones becomes everyone’s idea of the sleazy hack. The story is all that matters.
Dacre has been a lowering presence in British political life since he secured the editor’s chair at the Mail in 1992. Every prime minister since John Major has had to factor in ‘what the Mail will think’. It is a fair supposition that without Dacre’s complete devotion to the Brexit cause, the 2016 referendum would not have bothered the status quo. He was bested by Miller but, as we know now, the future belonged to Dacre. He championed Johnson and now Truss has been handed the Mail’s endorsement. The voters hardly matter. That is the greatest tragedy of all.
Walker has written a play, but he has also written history. I would not be surprised if future scholars looked to Bloody Difficult Women to get a flavour of Brexit’s extraordinary times and the nature of some of its cast.
Bloody Difficult Women is at the Assembly Rooms, George Street, Edinburgh until the end of August. To book, go to assemblyfestival.com