First Night Feature: Whipping It Up

Published April 17, 2008

A leadership challenge, dirty tricks, sleaze and scandal – all in a day’s work if you are a party whip. The party is in crisis and the Prime Minister is nowhere to be seen as Richard Wilson keeps a tottering Tory government in shape in Steve Thompson’s new play, Whipping It Up, which has transferred to the New Ambassadors from the Bush. Jo Fletcher-Cross attended the first night to find out how he does it.

The world of the Westminster whips is a mysterious and shadowy place. They exist, as Richard Wilson’s acerbic Chief Whip Fulton firmly tells junior whip, Tim (Lee Ross), “solely to enforce”. How they do this, however, is not quite clear. And that is exactly how they like it.

These whips are keeping in line a David Cameron-led party which has scraped election victory. Sleazy Tim is young and eager to please, with slicked-back hair and a swagger that would have fitted right in at a City wine bar in the 1980s. Looking out for him is the Deputy Whip, Alastair (Robert Bathurst), a dryly humorous charmer who knows the birthday of every MP’s wife – and mistress.

In real life, the rumour is that the whips have a secret dossier on every sexual peccadillo, affair and scandal involving an MP that can be used for blackmail if the need arises. Here, the threat is ‘the safe’; a legendary but rather ordinary safe in the office that allegedly contains all the dirt the whips would ever need on their party members. A pretty researcher, Maggie (Kellie Bright), has something for the safe; and with five party rebels on the loose it could be much more valuable than anyone realises.

The dirty tricks undertaken by Alastair and his sexy, dynamic Labour counterpart Delia (Helen Schlesinger) become ever more astonishing as the night goes on and the debates stretch out. With Cameron stuck in transit after a holiday in Florida with the President, and a growing crisis on their hands, the whips use everything at their disposal to get their way, masterminded by the experienced and truly faithful Fulton.

Tim Shortall’s set creates the atmosphere of what could be the prep room in a public school, with cricket paraphernalia casually slung around and Star Wars posters jostling for space with pictures of the Prime Minister. The sad little Christmas tree in party colours and the slightly pathetic decorations only serve to highlight the old boys’ club atmosphere, the tacky lights twinkling on the crystal whiskey decanters and silver goblets. The whips’ schoolboy humour and childish bad language, and their utter contempt for any female in parliament, confirm that we are in the territory of a certain type of privately educated male. Only Delia, who has learned to play the man’s game so well, is afforded respect.

In the end, though, this is a play about integrity, and it is surprising – and a little touching – to discover that there may be some in the corridors of power after all. JFC