I’ve probably been to and enjoyed more plays at Chichester Festival Theatres than anywhere else except the National Theatre. Unfortunately, The Inquiry at The Minerva wasn’t one of them.
The finale of Chichester’s 2023 season is Harry Davies’ theatrical debut and, no question, he is a promising playwright. Indeed there are signs that he has the potential to be another James Graham. I even suspect that, with more work, this play could take off but, at the moment, it’s still on the runway.
Before I report on my inquiry into what went wrong with The Inquiry, let me describe the subject of the play. Public Inquiries were established to answer the need for independent investigations into major incidents, as opposed to the previous practice of governments scrutinising their own wrongdoing. Harry Davies questions just how independent they are.
The subject of this particular Inquiry is a mass poisoning involving a water company. We join it at the stage known as ‘Maxwellisation’, a word I’d never come across before, but which is the term used for the moment when an Inquiry’s draft report is passed to those criticised, for comment and possible correction of facts.
The Justice Minister, who is also Lord Chancellor and an aspiring Prime Minister, has been chastised in the report for his actions whilst Environment Minister. He is dragging his feet in providing his response. To spice things up, someone is leaking confidential information about the report. The minister and his cohort are convinced it must be the Inquiry chair’s team. They plan a counterattack through the media to undermine the inquiry.
You might imagine this is the stuff of gripping drama. It’s not. Apparently, the Inquiry has so far taken four years, and the first act, in which the groundwork is laid for the second act, at some moments felt like it was going to last as long.
The complexities of public inquiries and political intrigues have the potential to be interesting, but only if the characters are meaty. The problem with The Inquiry is that they’re all rather more vegetable than red-blooded.
John Heffernan plays Arthur Gill, the minister under siege. Soft spoken with a ready smile and a flippant approach to serious questions, he is never likely to be accused of being a bully, or arrogant or even ambitious, despite having his eyes on the prime ministerial prize. Mr Heffernan brings colour to the role but he’s working from a pastel palette.
His assistant Helen played by Stephanie Street and his civil servant-cum-just-plain-servant Donna, played by Macy Nyman, are scarcely less pleasant.
Over on the opposing team, Lady Justice Deborah Wingate who chairs the Inquiry is just as quietly spoken, reasonable and smiley. You do get a sense of the steel she would need to employ in her position, but Deborah Findlay’s portrayal emphasises the niceness. No less nice is her right-hand man Jonathan Hayden KC, a charming fixer played by Nicholas Rowe.
Oh, and there’s Arthur Gill’s fixer, his old mentor, Lord Patrick Thorncliffe, who ‘knows’ people and shows at least a hint of ruthlessness behind his smooth exterior. Malcolm Sinclair is appropriately patrician in the role.
Not enough variety in the characters
Mr Davies writes decent, flowing dialogue but his characters all have the same way of speaking, and they’re all ever so polite. It’s as if they all went to the same public school, the same university and belong to the same club. Imagine you bought a Kellogg’s variety pack, and found they were all cornflakes. At one point, Arthur and Deborah even compare memories of their barrister days.
Now, Harry Davies might be making a point that those who run our government and judicial system are all part of an elite club, who know one another and have more in common with each other than they do with the rest of us. But, in a drama, we need characters to have characteristics that will amuse us and annoy us, but, most of all, make us believe their story.
Take David Cameron and Boris Johnson. They have almost identical educational backgrounds but very different characters. The people in The Inquiry seem to have no distinguishing features. When it comes to vanilla, they rival Madagascar.
I don’t mean The Inquiry should be like The Thick Of It but it would help if the combatants had some distinguishing mannerisms, verbal habits, or, heaven forbid, volatility. For goodness sake, these are politicians and barristers, professions full of actors manqués, people who deliberately adopt a persona for effect. It not only undermines the drama than none of them possess a ready wit, a line in sarcasm, a short fuse, or even a twitch, it takes away credibility.
The set designed by Max Jones reflects this: a background of a large rectangle of oak against a larger rectangle of marble, a leather-topped desk on a green carpet on a polished wooden floor. What could be more solid, more neutral- and more boring? This would be highly effective, if only it were in contrast to the characters squabbling on this stage.
Thank goodness for the quality of acting and Joanna Bowman’s direction, which breathed some life into the story.
There are moments within the play when you wake up and take notice. Each act features an ongoing interview between Arthur and a friendly journalist, Elyse. She’s not exactly Jeremy Paxman but she does get beneath his skin, and enables him to reveal more about himself than we might otherwise have learned. It’s a part played with zest by Shazia Nichols.
And I did like the way the play was full of misdirections, admittedly some more clever than others, before it gets to its big question: whether these two powerful people- the minister and the judge- will put their personal feelings or their ambition first.
Everything leads to the one-on-one confrontation, as he tries to force her into resignation and she steadfastly stands her ground. This provides some real drama, as an amiable irresistible force meets a mild-mannered immovable object. It’s a scene of revelations and one major twist. However, that twist is so implausible that when Dame Deborah said, ‘I find that hard to believe’, I found myself nodding: ‘You and me both, my Lady.’
I wondered for a moment whether I’d got the time frame wrong but the play is clearly set in the present day or thereabouts. Both have secrets that could have been scandals in a play from the early 1950s, maybe by Terence Rattigan whose style this drama resembles, but today? I wasn’t convinced.
Even if The Inquiry doesn’t quite deliver the goods, I hope to see more from Harry Davies.
The Inquiry can be seen at The Minerva until 11 November 2023