How is it possible that an audience who have just given a roaring ovation then leave the venue looking crestfallen? James Graham’s The Vote, a night-specific play set in a polling station over the last 90 minutes the ballot boxes are open, achieved that anomaly in 2015, when the Donmar Warehouse premiere (also screened live on Channel 4) concluded with the predominantly leftist London audience finding out from the TV exit poll that David Cameron’s Conservatives had a working majority.
A similar mood-flip occurred on Thursday night after a star-cast reading of The Vote 2019, an updated version, again directed by Graham’s original collaborator, Josie Rourke. In a large lecture hall at the premises that King’s College London took over from BBC World Service, 12 music stands were ranged before three dozen seated actors, many of whom had participated in the premiere, their scripts showing their own lines highlighted in yellow or pink.
The basic narrative remained as it was four years (and three elections) ago: a pedantic presiding officer is faced with a sequence of accidental cases of electoral fraud, caused by a confused older voter and a well-meaning assistant. Graham’s topical revisions mainly came from the possibilities of a rare mid-December election: new plot twists come from carols, an office Christmas party and a cancelled nativity play in the school hall commandeered for voting. New gags included ones about “Russian interference” and Greta Thunberg.
The Vote is essentially a civics lesson in the form of a sitcom: can you change your mind after voting? Why can’t you take selfies in a polling station? This rendition maximised the jokes, with narrator Simon Russell Beale reading the stage directions, even getting huge laughs from those thanks to cunning pauses. The demonstration of perfect comic timing was extended by Mark Gatiss’s presiding officer, Catherine Tate and Nina Sosanya as poll clerks, Paul Chahidi as a single-issue independent and Gawn Grainger as a constituent who takes his civic duty too keenly. Between the jokes, though, the play radiates a faith in the sacred, solemn privilege of democracy.
At 9.50pm, Gatiss’s character observed that there were “only 40 minutes to go”, and it was clear that the piece had slipped out of sync with real time. When the exit poll broke on my (muted) phone, I whispered it along the row, causing director Rourke to turn and shush. My apologies to her, but, for anyone who saw the original version, this play is indelibly a double bill with the exit poll’s predicted result. Producer Nica Burns said afterwards that the script had run to 90 minutes at rehearsal, but had lengthened with the unexpected level of interrupting laughter.
So, when the show ended and better-behaved theatregoers only then consulted their phones, there was again the paradox of people who had just seen a brilliant piece of comedy walking out with funereal faces.
On this evidence, The Vote should be staged in some form at each UK polling station, just as Gore Vidal’s The Best Man has been revived in the US every four years since 1960. And Graham will surely find many equally fine plays in the contradiction of a party dedicated to the preservation of the United Kingdom trying to govern it with support only in England and part of Wales.