Being the wife of Tony Blair’s chief-of-staff, Jonathan Powell, when Britain went to war with Iraq gave journalist Sarah Helm a unique viewpoint on an extraordinary situation. In this, her first play, she presents us with that viewpoint in what she calls a ‘fictionalised memoir’.
How much is true then, and how much is exaggerated or adapted for dramatic purposes, is not clear, however in a programme note Helm says the play “remains broadly true to how I personally experienced events, and to how I believe the decision to go to war came about”.
Scary stuff then, to see Blair hear from US intelligence chiefs that they made up a key source in the search for WMD, or to hear him on the telephone receiving advice from Rupert Murdoch on whether to go to war, which provokes a wry laugh, given present circumstances.
Sarah – or Laura, as her character in the play is named – is present during these calls, listening in with her partner Nick at their Stockwell home when he receives the nod from Downing Street that George, Rupert or Kofi is about to call the PM. These extraordinary insights into high-level relationships are, in Laura’s life, all part of regular, day-to-day life: as she listens she must also deal with a leak in the bathroom, kids tearing round the house and decorators doing up the kitchen.
As much about relationships as the details of how we went to war, Loyalty depicts the almost marital bond between Blair and Nick; the latter attends his boss in the bedroom as he is getting changed, helps him fasten his cuffs and bends to his every whim. This is heightened by the affair language used by Laura, who feels Nick is more loyal to Tony than her. However Laura’s own loyalties are also questioned as she becomes increasingly desperate to stop a war she doesn’t believe in.
Played out on a rather too large thrust stage, scattered with furniture, Edward Hall’s production switches between Laura and Nick’s home and Number Ten. With phones ringing incessantly and fire alarms going off at regular intervals, there is a relentless, harassed nature to the piece that is as exhausting to watch as it must have been to live through.
Maxine Peake’s Laura has as inquiring a mind as a journalist should, just at the edge of being annoying. By contrast Lloyd Owen’s Nick seems at times to be devoid of human feeling towards the crucial decisions being made by his employer, keen not to upset the apple cart and find himself on the outside. Patrick Baladi gains many of the laughs as Tony Blair, a portrayal that captures the former PM’s well-known mannerisms and tone of voice while stopping just short of being a caricature. Overall, he shows him to be a man floundering in a situation bigger than himself, a small fish being toyed with by the larger species in the sea.
Loyalty is no verbatim piece of theatre; we cannot take what is depicted as read. However, as a portrait of the inner workings of British political life it is intriguing, and there is doubtless more truth in Helm’s piece than we will ever know.