Anyone who has an awareness of British politics over the past six years will be acutely aware of how bizarre and insane the developments have been. In terms of political satire (which was once a staple on British television) nothing that can be imagined now could be any more outrageous than what’s transpired. In The Merciless Mission of Molly McCloy – a comedy written and directed by Ian Grant – many of the events, suspicions and rumours that have circulated in recent years find their way in one form or other in the play.
Conservative MP Freddie Branscombe (Simon Lenagan) has been elected as Prime Minister by a sizeable majority. Branscombe has left his wife for his latest mistress – who lives in their love nest in Wandsworth. Unbeknownst to him, the ‘mistress’ in question, Molly McCloy (Rachel-Mae Brady) is secretly a spy for Ulster’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and using their ‘relationship’ to cement favourable terms for Northern Ireland.
As someone who is known among the Establishment as not good with details or able to comprehend the long-term politcal consequences of his actions, others have had to step up and be vigilant on Branscombe’s behalf. One of these individuals is Dame Serena Ridinghard (Grace Cookey-Gam) the head of MI5. As someone from the same social circle as Branscombe, she is only all too aware of his proclivities, especially with regards to his affairs. Her own reservations about McCloy stem not from a sense of morality, but from the potential security risk McCloy poses and the influence she welds over the already easily distracted PM.
As a headstrong personality, McCloy isn’t short of self-belief regarding the importance of her mission and generally has a dim view of her DUP ‘handler’ Sean Smallwood (Paul Ansdell). His presence is meant to be a secret, but Branscombe finding them together forces Smallwood to improvise and pretend he’s a French couturier. However, Smallwood isn’t the only person that McCloy reports to, often teasing him and ‘corresponding’ with Sergey Igorovich Susemilh (Mark Carlisle) and the Conservative Friends of Russia…
Although playing a fictional character, Lenegan is a dab hand at channeling Boris Johnson’s public persona – a platitude-spouting Etonite with an inability to give straight answers and possessing a hedonistic streak. Certainly the character of Branscome wouldn’t be out of place in political sitcoms such as Yes Minister or The Thick Of It. Because of Branscombe’s persona, the play feels like a comedy/satire, rather than an out-and-out ‘serious’ political drama. Still, there is a maxim, that “You can say anything you want, as long as you make people laugh” and the play takes advantage of that, repackaging serious subjects that have made the news into a ‘comedy of errors’.
In contrast to Branscombe (who is very much a ‘beta’ personality, at the beck-and-call of his security personnel) McCloy is very much the person who has leverage in their relationship. If McCloy had a motto, it would be “The lady’s not for turning”, and would explain her subconscious appeal to Branscombe. McCloy as a character is as ingrained in her sectarian fervour as Eric Miller in David Ireland’s Cypress Avenue – perhaps even more so. And Branscombe’s semi-apathetic response to Ulster as ‘a hill to die on’ spurs McCloy even further, as he in her mind perpetuates the perceived betrayal of successive British governments to the Unionist cause. In any case, Brady vividly brings this incendiary person to life.
As another ‘beta’ personality, Smallwood (or rather his ‘alter ego’) is enthusiastically taken into the confidence of Branscombe, as they compare notes with how to keep the ‘queen bee’ happy. McCloy, however, isn’t the only woman who has sway in the play. Cookey-Gam’s Ridinghard exerts ‘soft’ influence, attempting to persuade Branscombe through suggesting courses of action that will ‘benefit’ him, rather than ‘slap his wrists’. Ridinghard’s role in the play is also a reminder of why a Prime Minister shouldn’t have unilateral power, who lets his libido override national interests. But it is the dynamic between Ridinghard and McCloy that is most interesting, as their ‘chemistry’ is rather one-sided…
As a virtual performance, The Merciless Mission of Molly McCloy is arguably one of the most ambitious productions to date, in terms of its duration and subject matter. Certainly while many theatre companies are now posting archived performances online, this show by Time Productions is not only an attempt to put on a new, full-length play, it also has something to say about ‘these unprecedented times’.
© Michael Davis 2020
The Merciless Mission of Molly McCloy is a professional rehearsed reading. All cast and creative team are paid. Donations are suggested, but 50% of the proceeds will be donated to the Actors’ Benevolent Fund in the UK. The show will be streamed until 5th July.