Dither and Delay: The Last Temptation of Boris Johnson

Everyone looked guilty, no matter how they’d voted the night before.

Our darting eyes unable to meet, heads hanging down under a dim sun slowly obscured by a flock of fluffy leaden-grey cloud, we all walked shiftily by one another on that morning of 24th June 2016: the day the United Kingdom woke up and realised it was leaving the European Union.

The ones who decided to leave and the ones who chose to remain jostled around me as I walked through town that morning; the atmosphere thick with a strange numbness that spread like an ink drop in a teacup. No matter how we voted, none of us knew as we went about our day together what lay ahead.

A glimpse into the mind what is sure to become one of the most divisive politicians of all time

We may not yet really have known how we felt or even what we’d done, but in those moments, as that strange all-encompassing ringing in the head engulfed us as if after an explosion, none of us ever thought that the person to lead us out of our malaise and into the next great chapter of this Great Britain would be Boris Johnson.

Will Barton as Boris Johnson in THE LAST TEMPTATION OF BORIS JOHNSON. Credit Pamela Raith (3)

Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson. Bojo. Bozza. Beano Boris. The Blond Bombshell. The nicer Donald Trump. David Cameron’s classmate. How could we know he would become the Prime Minister who would – after cutting through much dithering and delay – extricate us from the clutches of the European Union.

He didn’t know either. Sometime after David Cameron pulled the trigger on a referendum on membership of the EU in a cack-handed, last-ditch attempt to keep his conservative party from rending itself in twain, Boris Johnson sat down and penned two equally-impassioned articles; one ardently pro-leave and one vehemently pro-remain.

Will Barton returns to the role and is immediately striking in it

It is here then that we enter the curious world of Boris Johnson, joining him at the fated dinner party that changed the course of the heaving river of history; the night in February 2016 when Boris Johnson decided – claiming he was setting aside party to act in the best interests of the country – to become a leaver.

Emma Davies as Margaret Thatcher in THE LAST TEMPTATION OF BORIS JOHNSON. Credit Pamela Raith (2)

Written by Jonathan Maitland (author of hit plays Dead Sheep and An Audience With Jimmy Savile), Last Temptation is a tory psychodrama-cum-goofy sitcom, a glimpse into the mind what is sure to become one of the most divisive politicians of all time, and a blundering dissection of the decision that changed the course of history.

Having previously filled out the PM’s crumpled frame in 2017 TV movie Theresa vs. Boris: How May Became PM, Will Barton returns to the role and is immediately striking in it. While mildly slighter than the man himself, his walk onto the stage drew breath from the audience as this curious doppelgänger appeared, entirely believable from minute one.

A remarkably gentle comedy with more than a hint of A Christmas Carol

As unwitting flies on the dinner party wall, we witness Johnson’s corpulent, corporeal guests – including lawyer Marina Wheeler, columnist Sarah Vine, MP Michael Gove and media mogul Evgeny Lebedev – jostling with the more ephemeral spirits of prime ministers past, the charge led by Margaret Thatcher appearing suddenly inside the oven, swiftly followed by Winston Churchill and Tony Blair, all whispering honeyed nothings into the ear of Boris as he attempts to make his mind up about this Brexit lark.

Tim Wallers as Tony Blair in THE LAST TEMPATION OF BORIS JOHNSON. Credit Pamela Raith

Portrayed as little more than a sock puppet regurgitating the quotes of whichever of spirit has just spoken to him, Boris finally lands on the decision to back leave and, as Theresa May later resigns, to run for Prime Minister. In the second act we find ourselves suddenly propelled into the dreary landscape of a long-post-Brexit Britain 2029; the country still muggy and divided, Boris back in the political wilderness with an ambition to make Britain great again as his final temptation looms ever larger.

Alongside Will Barton, the rest of the cast are on double, sometimes triple, duties: Emma Davies sketches a slippery Sarah Vine and a strident, remarkably effective Thatcher; Bill Champion is borderline unrecognisable as he flits between the marionette machieavli Gove and world-weary, EU presidential wannabe Churchill; Claire Lichie paints sympathetic portrayals of Marina Wheeler and Caitlin, women pulled too close by Johnson’s greasy gravity; Tim Wallers pings all over the place as a boisterous, duplicitous Lebedev, redoubtable Huw Edwards, and a bug-eyed, harried Blair, for whom he appears to miraculously appear several inches ganglier all-over.

Preternaturally unskewerable and virtually satire-proof

Full of neat surprises – and one very startling moment lifted straight from the Buster Keaton playbook that is absurdly out of place but no less effective for it – this is a remarkably gentle comedy with more than a hint of A Christmas Carol about it, full of eminently watchable performances that barrel the whole thing along through sheer, daffy momentum.

Will Barton as Boris Johnson in THE LAST TEMPTATION OF BORIS JOHNSON. Credit Pamela Raith (2)

Keeping it broad and the satire milquetoast, the show leans in one direction yet never goes in for a killing blow; the giant target that is Johnson remaining dangerously sympathetic and never entirely skewered. Yet, perhaps, that is the point. For all his failed garden bridges, lies about straight bananas and affairs, sackings for inventing quotes, casual racism and virulent sexism, nothing ever sticks. The man appears preternaturally unskewerable and virtually satire-proof.

This glimpse inside his mind reveals nothing but an empty chamber, an echoing grand chasm into which ideas drift, only to be blurted out or rung dry of all political utility before falling forgotten into the darkness below. The Last Temptation of Boris Johnson is the tale of a dangerously bold and likeable man, free from empathy and remorse, entirely disinhibited, empty and still at large.

To quote from Brett Easton Ellis’ tale of another psycho, an American rather than an old Etonian one, “there is an idea of a Boris Johnson, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real him; only an entity, something illusory. Though he can hide his cold gaze and you can shake his hand and feel flesh gripping yours, and maybe you can even sense your lifestyles are probably comparable: he simply is not there.”

The Last Temptation of Boris Johnson is playing at Northern Stage until 4th January 2020.

Leigh Venus

Complimentary tickets provided by Northern Stage

Photos: Pamela Raith