Chris Mullin's MP diaries begin a run on West End stage

  • 19 June 2012
  • From the section England
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When former Sunderland MP Chris Mullin scribbled his daily diary entries in the 1990s and 2000s I can't imagine he ever thought they would end up being performed on a West End stage.

But that is exactly what is happening as the theatrical version of his opus begins a month-long run at the Arts Theatre in London.

The Labour MP's diaries have become something of a surprise sensation.

Mullin was renowned as the campaigner who helped free the Birmingham Six, but as an MP it's fair to say he failed to make a huge impact.

But that has made for a fantastic set of diaries as he parades his own frailty and failings in his document of the New Labour years.

He doesn't have a reputation to defend or a legacy to map out, and so you get more openness and less self-justification.

The diaries have also become part of the history of the period, even being quoted on several occasions recently in the Leveson Inquiry.

That still doesn't quite explain why a set of diaries has become a successful stage play.

When Newcastle's Live Theatre approached Mullin with the idea of dramatising the diaries, he thought it would never work.

But more than a year on, A Walk on Part has had two successful runs in Newcastle, has sold out two performances in London and even been performed at the Speaker's House in Parliament.

And clearly the producers feel there's an appetite for more.

Director Max Roberts said he expects the West End run to add to the reputation of the diaries and the play.

But he's not afraid to make alterations, even if the core text remains Chris Mullin's diary entries.

He said: "The diaries are always on my desk when we're rehearsing and if we feel there is something that can come in because it's topical then we will.

"We have added more of what Chris says about Murdoch. He was talking about the issue in the early years of New Labour.

"There's also Chris' reflections on the announcement that London had got the Olympics, followed the next day by his reaction to the 7/7 bombings."

The play has six actors, but a much wider cast of characters as Blair, Brown, Prescott and dozens of other New Labour figures are brought to life.

But of course at its heart is Mullin - played brilliantly by John Hodgkinson.

Mullin feels Hodgkinson is a hammed-up version of himself, but behind the theatricality, he does seem to have captured his character.

Hodgkinson's Mullin is a little Pooterish, prone to be a little self-righteous and even pompous, and certainly plagued with self-doubt.

But he is also fiercely intelligent and thoroughly decent. As for its success, John Hodgkinson puts it down to the source material.

He said: "What we like about it in dramatic terms is that it's not just about the political life but also about the personal life of a politician.

"There is a great dynamic between Sunderland and London, and family and public life, creating a rounded portrait of a decent man in politics. A lot of people do not think that sort of politician exists."

Chris Mullin has a lot that's positive to say about New Labour. To this day he believes it made a big difference to the lives of his former constituents in Sunderland.

But he is prepared to be honest about what went wrong as well as right.

He said: "The most successful diaries do tend to be those like mine which are written by people in the foothills of politics. It is a warts-and-all portrayal, but written I think with sufficient distance to be objective but also a little irreverent too."

And certainly not everything in the play flatters the Blair and Brown years or the individuals involved.

The transfer to London does offer the possibility or even risk that more of those portrayed on stage will end up seeing the play.

John Hodgkinson recalls John Prescott showing up for one of the previous London performances. Many of Mullin's entries focus on Prescott's rather idiosyncratic style of running a government department.

"Did he laugh?" I asked. "Initially", was his guarded reply, followed by a long dramatic pause.

"He never was my biggest fan," added Chris Mullin.

Perhaps it wasn't for Prezza then, but I'm guessing there will be a few more people joining the Mullin fan club before the end of the play's West End run.

A Walk on Part runs at the London Arts Theatre from 19 June to 14 July.

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