“I only just wrote some of this… I hope it works out.” These aren’t the words you expect to hear from a playwright seconds before his latest work is performed, but The Vote is no ordinary play. It was broadcast in real-time on More4 on election night as the final votes were cast. It’s an unusual coalition of film and theatre that is – for the most part – more effective than the current political coalition.
The action takes place in a polling station in a south London swing-seat. Three poll clerks, exhausted after 14 hours on the job, ruminate on the democratic process as the last voters trickle in from work or stagger from the pub. Things go awry when an elderly man is mistakenly given a second ballot, potentially compromising the entire count. What follows is a comedy of errors where every attempt to rectify the mistake makes matters exponentially worse (forcing family members to vote in an attempt to “even things up” seemed like a bad idea from the off).
It’s amazing how much tension is created from the foundation of this little oversight, but playwright James Graham, at the ripe old age of 32, is already an old hand at constructing thrilling political dramas, with a CV including the excellent This House and TV drama Coalition.
Graham is a huge politics geek, fascinated with its machinations and imperfections, the rusty cogs that lie behind the curtain. His play reflects both the brilliance and absurdity of an electoral system that is on the one hand ancient and proud, and on the other inherently absurd, involving school gymnasiums and pencils on string.
That the events unfold in real time, with a literal ticking clock on the stage, makes for a nail-biting countdown to the finale. Ironically, though, for such a thoroughly modern production, the live format gives the play a rather retro feel, like the sit-coms of yesteryear that were filmed in front of a live audience. There are no intervals or set changes; as soon as one character leaves, another pops up to keep the momentum going.
Graham also seems a little too concerned with appealing to a wide audience, peppering the play with jokes about selfies, Siri and Russell Brand that feel a little out of step with its more thoughtful elements. Some of the gags were so clearly signposted I half expected a laughter track, which those viewing at home will have courtesy of the theatre audience. The bit-part characters used to represent different aspects of the electorate also feel a little blunt; the self-obsessed banker, the tragic hipster, the tech-savvy first-time voter.
Having said that, the standard of acting is generally outstanding (especially from the bigger players like Catherine Tate, Mark Gatiss and Judi Dench), and the political figures are brilliantly written, especially a loopy single-issue candidate who delivers a painfully funny monologue on one-way systems. Likewise, a tragicomic speech by the unfancied Tory candidate on the fragile beauty of the voting process is enough to bring a tear to your eye.
At its best The Vote is a heartfelt love-letter to British democracy in all its flawed, idiosyncratic glory. It pokes fun at the electoral system, but only in the way Alan Bennett pokes fun at the working classes – from a position of great affection. The good work is slightly undone by a desire to be all things to all men, striving to be both Channel 4 and Radio 4 and never quite reconciling the two.
First published in City A.M.