The narrow horseshoe of the Chichester Festival Theatre’s (CFT) small Minerva Theatre is an ideal setting for political drama, and Investigations Correspondent for the Guardian Harry Davies’ The Inquiry follows a tradition set by James Graham’s first play, This House, and Christopher Shinn’s latest work, The Narcissist.
The intimate Minerva space draws the audience in as the first act establishes the parameters of a confrontation between the judge leading a public inquiry into an incident of water pollution and the ambitious Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor, Arthur Gill. Gill, first seen in his grand robes while taking the oath of office, was also the less-than-conscientious Environment Minister at the time of the incident.
As Lady Justice Deborah Wingate (played by Deborah Findlay, recently seen playing head of chambers in The Split) completes the first draft of her report, Arthur Gill (John Heffernan, Duke of Somerset in Becoming Elizabeth) learns there may soon be a vacancy for Prime Minister and considers himself a well-placed candidate. However, the Wingate Report could derail his chances of the top job, and the play revolves around his ability to have criticism of himself removed – by fair means or foul.
The play’s premise has some basis in fact. After (failed) legal action by Robert Maxwell in the 1980s, judges became conscious that defamation claims could delay or otherwise undermine public inquiry reports. That risk led to a right of response being established for anyone criticised in the first draft, as well as an opportunity to amend it.
This right was used to full effect to delay and mitigate the conclusions of the Chilcot Report on the invasion of Iraq. Lord Leveson excluded the process from his inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press, but it is likely to apply in the current Covid-19 Inquiry, which makes Harry Davies’ play so fascinatingly topical. However, the televised proceedings may already have damaged some reputations beyond redemption.
In the play, there are grounds for Arthur Gill to fear that the judge may not be inclined to accept his changes, and his special advisers, particularly his PR special advisor Helen (Stephanie Street, Diana Ingram in James Graham’s Quiz at the CFT), start digging for dirt on the Wingate team.
Meanwhile Gill deftly handles questions from a young investigative journalist writing a profile of him. The first act is set in offices and gradually establishes the characters and essential background information. After the interval the action speeds up, matched by exciting new scenery of Lady Wingate’s garden, sliding rapidly out from the back of the set, a process not previously seen at the Minerva.
The drama mounts
In the second act, the audience is gripped by a rapid series of dramatic personal revelations with Lady Wingate’s King’s Counsel on the Inquiry forced to resign, and the appearance of the final character. This blackmailing lobbyist for the water company is a former mentor of Gill and pressures him to take a harder line with the judge. Malcolm Sinclair of the National Theatre, in his role of Lord Patrick Thorncliffe KC completes fine performances by a strong cast of seven, culminating in a final showdown between the two leads.
The Inquiry seems destined for success on the West End stage like so many CFT productions, currently represented by The Unfriend and Crazy for You, while Harry Davies joins the ranks of the young British playwrights that this century has already seen flourish. Theatregoers can surely expect more political plays from him, and should be sure to catch his first: The Inquiry.