Kenneth Clarke’s description of Theresa May as “a bloody difficult woman” may still be vividly, and excruciatingly, remembered by many of us. It was caught on camera in a TV studio in 2016 just before May made the move from home secretary to prime minister.
That unflattering epithet gives Tim Walker’s debut drama its ironic title, though it is not only in reference to May but also to Gina Miller, the businesswoman who took the government to court over its authority to trigger article 50 without parliamentary approval after the Brexit vote.
The drama depicts how May (Jessica Turner) hoped to bypass the Commons vote and how Miller (Amara Karan) stepped in. Process matters, Miller says to her husband, Alan (Edmund Kingsley), and that sentiment resounds across other threatened processes since, from the proroguing of parliament to the police investigation of No 10 over “partygate”. As Miller says, “If those who govern us don’t stick to the rules, no one will.”
Miller is shown as a reluctant defender, stepping into the breach when no one else is prepared to “put their hand up” and all the more heroic for it, given the media hostility and death threats she received. May, for her part, is navigating her way through a hostile political system and trying to keep the manipulative tentacles of the rightwing press at bay.
In Stephen Unwin’s snappy production, both women offer occasional monologues to hammer home the point that they are operating inside a deeply misogynistic system. But while the play’s gender politics are in the right place it feels slight. We wish for more insight, and sharper humour, than it gives us, even though it has the promising look and feel of a James Graham play: a slick photographic backdrop of Whitehall and its surroundings (set design by Nicky Shaw) with News at Ten-style music to match (sound design by John Leonard) along with short, punchy scenes.
But there is not the accompanying detail or complexity, and it ends up resembling an episode of Yes, Prime Minister. Miller sounds off to her husband and May does the same with a senior adviser (Graham Seed); her rock of a husband never makes an appearance. There are some pointed “foreign secretary” gags with Boris Johnson drawn as a political Lord Voldemort – he who must never be named in May’s office. This humour carries its own dismal irony but seems a little obvious.
The Daily Mail’s former editor, Paul Dacre (Andrew Woodall), is given a central role and controls the narrative around the two women – demonising Miller and manipulating May even while professing to support her. Dacre is portrayed here as a charmless megalomaniac but his bad language (a machine-gun welter of swearwords) is a dully repeated joke. His newsroom assistant, meanwhile, speaks in old-fashioned cockney rhyming slang. If Walker – a journalist himself – intends for humour here, his character comes off as a throwback tabloid cliche.
Both Karan and Turner are strong performers but not all the cast was as smooth at a preview show I attended. The highlight comes in the final scene, which brings us to the present day, and a confrontation between the women in which sparks begin to fly.
After Clarke’s comment became headline news, May observed: “If standing up for what you believe to be right makes you ‘bloody difficult’, then so be it.” This play proves her point but simultaneously reveals the potholes that leave it so much harder for women, even those as indomitable as May and Miller, to make that stand.