Actor John Hodgkinson on playing the part of Labour veteran Chris Mullins and the relevance of 90s British politics today
From March 22nd the Soho Theatre will be extending its hugely successful run of 'A Walk on Part', the dramatic adaptation of Labour veteran Chris Mullins’ diaries which has already won acclaim from Tony Benn, Hilary Benn and of course, the diarist himself. Playing the part of Mullins is James Bond and Peep Show actor John Hodgkinson who tells us how art-funding cuts imposed by the coalition government prompted director Max Roberts to create one of the season’s most important theatre shows.
Dazed Digital: Whose idea was it to stage 'A Walk on Part' and how did the idea evolve?
John Hodgkinson: Max Roberts, who is also the director of Pitman Painters in the West End at the moment, needed to find a cheap play to put on because of funding cuts. I think he met Chris Mullin and it sparked the idea to dramatise the diaries. Then he got a brilliant writer called Michael Chaplin to adapt the text and that’s how it started. I just went along to the audition because I was already a big Mullin fan. Mullin, you understand, isn’t a theatre-goer. He doesn’t have the time and he didn’t really understand how you could translate the diaries to stage; but he’s fully supportive and is a huge fan of the show now.
DD: So he has seen it?
John Hodgkinson: Countless times. He brings parties of friends along, he’s very proud of it.
DD: This isn’t a straightforward play. Should we think of 'A Walk On Part' a piece of documentary theatre?
John Hodgkinson: It is drama and no, it’s not quite verbatim drama because it is filtered through Mullins’ vision. We’ve got four actors playing 100 different parts or more, including: Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and Claire Short. But many of the people are not famous, they are his constituents and his family.
DD: So, it’s not all set inside the Houses of Parliament?
John Hodgkinson: Not at all. It’s set partly in Chris’ constituency in Sunderland, partly in the Houses of Parliament and partly in Africa. He was African Minister of the foreign office at one stage and that was his favourite job. The set’s very simple; there are screens at the back showing places and dates and the odd Steve Bell cartoon, then there are 8 chairs and that’s it, no props.
DD: What was it about Chris Mullin and his achievements that you wanted to highlight in this role?
John Hodgkinson: I wanted to make a hero out of a man who just wanted to do what was right. I mean we all think that politicians are useless and corrupt and in it for themselves but here is a good man who made some small and incremental changes for the good. Although, before this play starts he had been the man responsible for having the Birmingham 6 released, which was a really big story and took a huge amount of physical courage. He had to go to Ireland and knock on the doors of IRA members.
In order to reach the kind of office in which you have the chance to make the really big decisions, you have to make some compromises. Part of Mullins’ problem, and part of his attractiveness, is that he could never quite make all the compromises that were necessary.
DD: Does the play engage people that aren’t familiar with the Labour Party or British politics?
John Hodgkinson: I hope so. The important thing is that it covers a time that many young people still remember and they will remember the world events that happen in the play. This contextualizes them. Things like: the invasion of Afghanistan, Iraq and September 11th.
DD: And there’s some irony in the fact that the play was borne out of the art cuts made by the coalition government?
John Hodgkinson: Mullin would say that, apart from the obvious catastrophe in Iraq, which you know he was completely against, the Labour party did make great strides in terms of health spending, education spending and social policy. Those things are certainly being broken down now.
'A Walk on Part' is running at the Soho Theatre until April 14, 2012, at Soho Theatre, 21 Dean Street, London, W1D 3NE