It was theatre’s biggest ever display of election fever: an ensemble cast of over forty, a ticket ballot that kept audiences in suspense and a live broadcast on More 4 during the last hours of voting. Yet the Donmar Warehouse’s highly-anticipated new play by James Graham, The Vote, is not a political drama. It’s a sitcom-style piece set in a school polling station, as a colourful array of characters come and go to post their slips – and a gloriously British havoc erupts.
The comedy revolves around the council workers manning the polling station: Mark Gatiss as a chief polling officer who cherishes the archaic system of voting, Catherine Tate as his ditzy council clerk, and Nina Sosanya as her straitlaced colleague. As they are challenged with the eccentricities of the British public, drama strikes when a bumbling Timothy West comes along and apparently votes twice. To rectify the blunder, Tate’s character attempts to rig the system to balance out the extra vote. She steals a drunk man’s poll card and votes under her neighbour’s name – but as both turn up and her boss finds out, the countdown to closing time takes on a more comical aspect.
Without delving into any heavy-handed political issues, the play’s set-up provides a wide-scale portrayal of modern British society. We see a whole spectrum of individuals in a series of vignette-style episodes. Two schoolgirls burst in and ask Siri who they should vote for; a Russian immigrant breaks the rules by taking a selfie with her lesbian partner to commemorate her first vote; and (real-life) mother and daughter Judi Dench and Finty Williams bicker over who deserves to vote more when they find themselves registered under one identity.
With even Jude Law making a surprise appearance for the play’s live stream to television, The Vote is something of a star-studded comedy gala. It’s a superbly novel premise for a play, with Catherine Tate, who is surprisingly as funny in the theatre as on television, particularly strong at leading the pack. It doesn’t have anything particularly profound to say about Britain’s election system, but that is the beauty of it: it’s a traditionally Ayckbourn-style farce with a modern edge.
Most promisingly, with the mediums of theatre and film/television becoming increasingly interrelated, one hopes that The Vote will inspire future productions to consider live stream performances. Thematically and theatrically, The Vote has been a cultural highlight of the year, and it’s a shame to think that audiences might otherwise have missed out.