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Review: Loyalty

Iraq war exposé fails to reveal enough secrets

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There is a scene in Sarah Helm's knowing debut, set in the run-up to the Iraq war and its aftermath, that might have felt like a piece of political point-scoring during rehearsals. But by the time the play opened, the day after the Murdochs' astounding appearance in front of the Commons Select Committee, it suddenly had an urgency and insight thatmost political playwrights would kill for.

It happens when Tony - as in Blair - gets a call from Rupert - as in the destroyer of western civilisation - during which Rupert tells Tony that he has just been talking to Donald Rumsfeld and that "Don's boys" would really appreciate using the base on the British territory of Diego Garcia to attack Iraq. "It's the right decision," says Rupert.

So it is thanks to Helm - who was living with Jonathan Powell, Blair's chief-of-staff at the time of the Iraq war - that we can now accuse Murdoch of not only being ultimately responsible for the wrongs committed by the News of the World, but also of being one of those who encouraged Blair to go to war. "We'll be with you," Rupert tells Tony.

Described as a "fictional memoir", Helm writes with the confidence and scepticism of one intimately acquainted with the ruling classes. The tense pre-war part of the play is set in the house where Helm's journalist alter ego Laura (Maxine Peake) lives with the Powell figure, Nick (Lloyd Owen). The post-war second act takes place in a panicky Downing Street as Blair's case for going to war disintegrates with the imminent publication of a report revealing there were no weapons of mass destruction after all.

We have been here before, of course. David Hare's Stuff Happens forensically explored America's and Britain's rush to war, thrillingly revealing a process that is usually hidden from the public.

Helm's play does the same job to some extent. But there is no getting away from the fact that her main concern is how a relationship survives when one half of the partnership is engaged on a course of action with which the other half profoundly disagrees. So perhaps inevitably, a play set against the background of a country lurching to war, but in which shopping is busily unpacked, the fridge is stocked, and an au pair makes sandwiches, seems more like a footnote to history than an examination of it. And there is little else that feels as revelatory as that phone call with Rupert.

Still, Edward Hall's production is absorbing, and Helm is convincing on the moods and modus operandi of those making life-and-death decisions. Patrick Baladi delivers one of the best versions of Tony I have seen, and Peake's likeable Laura manages to prevent Helm's anti-war heroine from coming across as not only holier than thou, but even holier than Blair.

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