April 11, 2021

Spoiling – new play looks at life for a government minister in an independent Scotland

New play Spoiling, on now at Stratford East’s Theatre Royal brings together two politicos from different backgrounds with a shared distaste for England in general and the Tories in particular. Written by Northern Irish playwright John McCann and directed by artistic director of the Traverse Orla O’Loughlin the action takes place a few days after the Scottish Referendum result. A pregnant Scottish minister-designate and a spin doctor from Northern Ireland argue about a forthcoming speech but find themselves allied by stronger prejudices.

Produced in the theatre’s black cube studio space, the stage has a desk in front of a large window, a couple of armchairs and coffee table. We’re in a minister’s office, the floor covered in an absurd amount of spoiled sheets of A4 paper that look like draft copies of  bills, government papers and speeches. The sun rises behind the window, it’s Scotland’s new dawn. The result of the referendum is in, the YES campaign has won.

Spoiling is not a recap of Yes! No! referendum arguments. Its fifty minutes is taken up by a disagreement between Gabriel Quigley’s undiplomatic minister Fiona and her new advisor Henderson, played by Richard Clements. Fiona is to give a speech. But will she keep to the script? Comparing politics in the playwright’s Northern Irish home with that in Scotland Spoiling gives a blast of political realism. The euphoria of the Independence campaign has already been replaced by the need for diplomacy and careful choice of words. The play shows the change from an optimistic politics of change to the more dreary getting on with everyday life.

Quigley plays the minister as a weary fighter, tiring of the need to put on a front and toe the party line. Like an invading power with no plan for how to run the country it has invaded she has won the referendum but has no idea how to run a government department. She may have helped her party win the referendum, but they have realised her skills are not what they need anymore. Clements shows the nasty streak hidden under Henderson’s smart suit. He embodies a modern political focus concerned less with the truth but how things come across.

Spoiling’s swearing often appears forced and its casual blasphemy is unnecessary. The first appearance of Fiona is nicely played, but the script is not very funny. Northern Ireland is mocked unpleasantly, whilst there are attempted laughs from the minister calling Henderson Anderson and mentioning the old saws, Eton and the Tories.

With the real world referendum vote only days away is Spoiling political science fiction or does it show a situation that will soon be played out in Edinburgh? We find out on September 18th, after which the play will either be produced again and again or become a quaint example of what might have been. It comes straight from the Traverse Edinburgh Fringe where it received a Fringe First Award for new writing. It is very topical, but its rhetoric is designed to appeal to a Scottish audience – seen in London it reminds that England is one of the few acceptable targets that remain for a generalised drubbing.

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