Theatre Review – The Vote at the Donmar Warehouse

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So, I failed in the ballot for tickets for James Graham’s new play, but thanks to a generous friend who queued this morning, I managed to get a standing ticket for tonight’s performance and I’m so pleased I was able to enjoy the experience of seeing this production live in advance of tomorrow night’s broadcast on More 4.

Created by James Graham and the Donmar’s Josie Rourke and written by Graham, whose previous work has highlighted an interest in politics (the brilliant This House at the National in 2012 and the recent Coalition for television) and also his flair for bringing something a little different and quirky to the stage (such as last year’s Privacy, also at the Donmar), The Vote is a wonderfully funny farce, set in the last hectic 90 minutes of polling on election day. Staged in real time (as will be the case tomorrow night), he brings the audience through the doors of a typical polling station in a South London marginal seat, managing to bring an incredibly funny and entertaining show to the stage while also highlighting the importance of each of us playing our part in deciding how our country is run, by casting our vote tomorrow. In fact, I can even say I’ll have voted twice this year, as before taking our places in the circle tonight, I lined up with the rest of the audience to hand in my polling card, be issued my ballot paper and vote within the Donmar’s very own polling station! This was a wonderful way to start the evening and draw the audience in to the atmosphere of the show.

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My very own Donmar polling card!

Much has been said about the huge cast of actors in The Vote. Most of these are small roles, of those simply coming in to vote, but who bring with them a quirky story or glimpse in to their lives outside the world of this school hall. The play however centres around the polling station staff, presiding officer Steven Crosswell (Mark Gatiss) and poll-clerks Kirsty (Catherine Tate) and Laura (Nina Sosanya) and how the last 90 minutes of voting become far more stressful and farcical than they could ever have imagined. Everything is going smoothly, the day is almost over and the station is determined to beat one of its rivals in completing its count in this marginal seat. That is until an old man (played by the wonderful Timothy West) arrives and votes….for the second time…..! You can imagine the hilarity of events that follow and I won’t spoil them before tomorrow night’s live broadcast. Suffice to say, the eccentricities of the British public and the voting system are used to full comedic effect.

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Finty Williams & mother Judi Dench are among the wonderful ensemble cast

Mark Gatiss is perfect for the part of Steven, the man in charge of running a tight ship and a stickler for the rules and order, who slowly starts to crumble as he loses control of events around him. We watch with sympathy, as his morals are tested to the limit by circumstances and the actions of others, particularly Catherine Tate’s Kirsty. She clearly loves the status of being a polling agent, but soon her desperate attempts to rectify one mistake snowball in to some of the funniest scenes I’ve seen on stage for a while and it’s lovely to have Catherine and Mark on stage together again after 2010’s Seasons Greetings. Catherine is always superb at comedy and that is still the case here. Kirsty feels incredibly believable, as she stumbles chaotically through events, desperate to make things right again, but managing to only make everything worse and her relationship with Nina Sosanya’s Laura works very well indeed.

Josie Rourke has done a brilliant job in directing such a big cast and ensuring that almost every bit part adds another dimension to the world of the play, adding to its depth of realism. Personal favourites of mine were the young cycling couple – he is so oblivious to her lack of joy at cycling, Hadley Fraser’s drunken voter, the first time teenage schoolgirls, whose grasp of what they are actually doing made me feel quite ancient (I loved the line about using a pencil feeling like they were in the 90s!) and Paul Chahidi’s Independent candidate, whose passionate outrage about punctuation is very funny indeed. Then of course there is the duo of Dame Judi Dench and her daughter Finty Williams, playing mother and daughter here as well. Judi is always on top form and although this isn’t a huge role, along with Gatiss, she certainly receives some of the biggest laughs of the evening.

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Catherine Tate & Timothy West

James Graham clearly understands the intricacies of British politics incredibly well and is therefore able to present something that is not dry or dull, but that instead highlights the common flaws of the system (such as people who don’t understand how to vote or who they are actually voting for), as well as the quirks of our democratic process, that when you think about it are hilariously old fashioned and eccentric in this modern age – as we all head to school and church halls, to place a  cross in a box using a pencil, in a room where phones and conversation are against the rules. After seeing it, I’m surprised no one has thought to set a farce in a polling station before. However, I loved that despite the calamities that befall Gatiss and his team, you cannot deny that everything they do is to try and preserve the integrity of the system, no matter how strange it may seem (as highlighted by the bemused attitude of a Swedish reporter).

The Vote is certainly an interesting and fun theatrical experiment, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It has a sense of humour and a sparkle to it, while also managing to bring a sense of importance to our democratic system (something most of the politicians seem unable to achieve). As the play was devised to work both on stage and screen, it will be interesting to watch it from my sofa tomorrow night and see it again from this different perspective. I encourage everyone to sit down at 8:25 p.m. and turn on More 4 to see it. I guarantee it’ll most likely be the most fun part of this entire election campaign!

The Vote will be broadcast tomorrow night (7th May) on More 4, starting at 8:25 p.m and will be available on All 4 from 8th May. View the trailer here. A digital copy of the theatre programme can also be downloaded via the Green Room app available on iTunes here.

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