The Vote: fictional polling station provides comic relief but is a missed opportunity

Politics lite. Phil Fisk

As the last voters frequented their respective polling stations in the 2015 general election, the goings on in the last 90 minutes of polling at another station were broadcast to many as they waited for the results to start coming in. But this was a polling station in a fictional constituency in Lambeth, south London, actually located in London’s Donmar theatre. The play broadcast was called The Vote, and its final performance was on May 7 at 8.25pm.

The Vote is a situation comedy, or farce (appropriate when light relief is needed). The main jokes revolve around the accident of elderly Fred Norris (Timothy West) receiving two voting papers. Catherine Tate’s cockney mum, Kirsty, and polite, middle class, dried fruit-eating Laura, played by W1A’s Nina Sosanya, are the poll clerks who struggle to resolve their mistake by perpetuating a cascading series of minor electoral frauds. Even Mark Gatiss’s upstanding if uptight presiding officer Steven is eventually drawn into their bumbling double-dealing.

Comic calamities

Throughout the play’s 90 minutes, dozens of other voters come and go and myriads of other minor comic calamities occur. Judi Dench and her actual daughter, Finty Williams, play a mother and daughter with the same name living at the same address who arrive to find they’re only registered for a single vote. Independent candidate Howard (Paul Chahidi) is running on the single issue of the local one-way system with the slogan, “One way? No way!”. Two first-time voters in school uniforms ask their genie-in-a-phone Siri who they should vote for. Several characters comment on the quaint antiquity of a democratic system operated with pencils and paper.

Tate’s Kirsty is proudly digital age, delighted she’s become the meme known as Axe Woman, having been videoed axing the door to the primary school in order to break in and set up the polling station. It turns out the Scottish school janitor had been called away to help his pregnant daughter. Near the end of the play we learn she has given birth to her daughter of the Scottish diaspora … named Nicola.

There is a lot that’s pleasurable in the play, created by writer James Graham and Donmar Artistic Director Josie Rourke. Tate is often guffaw-out-loud funny playing a canny-naive Haribo-quaffing schemer. Chahidi’s anti-one-way Independent is delightfully single-track in his thinking, claiming the Yellow Brick Road is a one-way system even though its whole point is that it leads to Oz.

The 40-strong cast offers a breathtaking display of age and ethnic diversity. The realistic primary school gymnasium set designed by Robert Jones is achingly accurate, complete with small stacked chairs, vaulting horse, upright piano, basketball and hula hoops, and, as Dench’s character observes, the familiar smell of feet and cabbages.

The play poses a sentimental but persuasive fondness for the polling station and its arcane practices. It also stages a gentle, teasing affection for British voters of all kinds – young and old, immigrants and natives, black and white, straight and queer, English and Scottish. Admirably, The Vote’s televising extends its reach for no price of admission to viewers who would not otherwise get to see it. That is politics in action.

Foreboding end

What most moved me about the show was its ending. After 85 minutes of jollity, the play concludes with presiding officer Steven and poll clerk Kirsty admitting fraud. For Gatiss’s Steven, the voting irregularities are catastrophic. “It has to mean something, right?”, he demands. “It has to matter!” Gatiss delivers the lines fiercely, like they are important. And they are.

However banal, local and familiar the polling station practices of voting may be, voting has consequences, consequences which are massive and enduring. Big Ben strikes ten o’clock and polling station closing time. The lights fade on the remaining characters, caught in rictuses of shock, bewilderment, fear, and terror. The play’s final minutes are dark and miserable. How prescient.

The Vote was mostly light, but this ending offered a political punch. Admittedly, the play raised other political issues. A wealthy man’s wife accuses him of benefiting from the financial crisis. Dench’s retired nurse pours scorn on her NHS “suit” daughter. A youngish drunk man blames older generations for ruining things for his generation, who can afford neither homes nor pensions.

But I couldn’t help feeling this was a missed opportunity. Right now, do we need light jokes about slightly potty old Blighty? Do we need plays with no explicit reference to any specific candidate or party policy, with no developed critique of any current issues such as the deep and devastating effects of austerity cuts, the creeping privatisation of the NHS, the normalisation of zero-hours contracts, the appalling housing crisis, and the march of ever-widening inequality, not to mention cuts to public funding for education and the arts?

I welcome The Vote’s dark, foreboding ending, and its democratic act of going to broadcast. But I feel now is the time for more vicious Orton-esque farce and more assertive, detailed, committed political critique. And I feel this even more as I write this, the morning after the night before.