Why almost a review? Well, I saw The Inquiry on its second preview last Saturday night, and usually you can tell when a preview show is pretty much already “there” in terms of having a finalised script, settled staging, confident performances, and sure-footed direction. Last month, we saw the second preview of Never Have I Ever at the same theatre, and, although I had my reservations about the play and its content, there was no denying the fluidity and confidence of the performers and production.
However, I really did not get that vibe from last Saturday’s performance. Writer Harry Davies – investigations correspondent at The Guardian – watched the show a few seats from us with his pen and pad in hand and a worried look on his face. Fine, reputable actors fluffed their way through scenes with a faltering hold on the script and an uncertainty that you would never associate with them. All of this suggested to me that there had been a flurry of re-writes and they were still coming to terms with them. Press Night was due to take place on Tuesday 17th, but a little online research suggests that it was cancelled, and checking the Chichester Theatre website today the next scheduled performance is the matinee on Saturday 21st. They haven’t even released any production photos, only the rehearsal pics. It doesn’t sound very promising, does it? Let’s hope that most of the issues that were evident on the 14th will have been resolved by then.
So, to review a preview, or not to review a preview? That is the question. Normally, if that’s the only way I can get to see a play that I want to catch, and provided it’s clear that it is indeed a preview performance that is being reviewed, so one should always make concessions to the fact that it might not yet be tip-top, I don’t see why not. And after all, it was a public, paying performance. So please bear in mind, the production that resurfaces on Saturday may well be a million miles from what I saw last Saturday. In fact, I rather hope it is. As a result, I don’t think it’s fair to give this show a star rating at the moment.
The basis of the play is reasonably straightforward. Thrusting young MP and newly Lord Chancellor, the Right Honourable Arthur Gill is the subject of an inquiry into his dealings with Eastern Water, who appear to have had the unfortunate problem of poisoning their customers with contaminated water supplies. The subject is nothing if not topical. Leading the inquiry is Lady Justice Deborah Wingate, assisted by Jonathan Hayden KC. Gill himself receives advice from a trusted old friend, Lord Patrick Thorncliffe KC. Gill is hotly tipped to become the next party leader, and therefore the next PM. Still, things are looking bad with the inquiry, so it’s time to start playing dirty. Scandals, leaks, and lies abound – and will Lady Wingate ever be able to finalise her inquiry?
It’s a riveting situation. However, as performed on last Saturday night, it’s not a riveting play. In fact, I always got the sense that there was another play taking place in parallel, that we never get to see, and which sounds a lot more interesting than the one we’re watching. That may be because, whilst it’s called The Inquiry, we never get to observe that inquiry in action. All we see are the background negotiations, plans and rectum-protectum operations. I longed for a courtroom scene to inject a bit of true drama into the proceedings – alas, it wasn’t to be.
It feels as though the characters are all engaged in pussyfooting around the main meat of the issue, rather than tackling the important subject of people dying from their water supply. That’s because it’s seen from their perspective, rather than from Eastern Water’s and Gills’ victims’ angle. And, to be fair, I don’t think that’s what Harry Davies is attempting to achieve with this play. However, quite what it is he is trying to do also isn’t clear. Additionally, most of the characters are unlikeable; this has the unfortunate side effect of not making you care one way or the other about their fate. And I don’t think I’m giving any games away by adding that – certainly as it was written and performed on Saturday night – the inquiry won’t result in any long term change.
Max Jones has created a very antiseptic governmental office for most of the scenes; the boxes of inquiry documents that surround the stage suggest a monument of paperwork that has to be painstakingly gone through – but there’s hardly a box file on stage which implies the opposite, so that design element felt self-contradictory. Mr Jones does however give us Lady Wingate’s charmingly verdant garden terrace as a blaze of colour and calm, and as a beautiful retreat from the stark reality of governmental business.
John Heffernan is superb as Gill; a naturally smug politician treading carefully around the pitfalls of his somewhat vivid and busy sexual younger days, and happy to parry-riposte whenever he can to try to regain the upper hand. There’s also a terrific performance from the always reliable Malcolm Sinclair as his advisor Thorncliffe, as slimy and sleazy as they come, marvellously manipulative and condescending. Scenes between those actors are electric with tension. However, as at Saturday, the other actors still had some ground to make up, shall we say; but fingers crossed that they come through exactly as you would expect when it reopens.
One is used to seeing comedians perform Work in Progress shows, where they chuck new material at an audience to see what lands and what doesn’t. Saturday’s performance almost felt like the theatrical equivalent. As this is only almost a review, of a second night preview, it needs a whole lot of work to bring it up to scratch. But that’s the thing about theatre – miracles do happen.
Rehearsal photos by Manuel Harlan