Michael Healey scores again with 1979, his take on Joe Clark’s political failures

He’s off base in his characterization of Stephen Harper, but the play’s so deft and funny that you won’t mind


1979 by Michael Healey (The 1979 Group). At the Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley). Runs to January 27. $20-$70. canadianstage.com, 416-368-3110. See listing. Rating: NNN


Politics is a very nasty game. That’s the nub of Michael Healey’s funny and very perceptive play about Prime Minister Joe Clark’s last stand in 1979.

It’s the day Parliament is voting on Prime Minister Joe Clark’s first budget. But he’s leading a Progressive Conservative (now defunct federally) minority government and doesn’t have enough support. The NDP, angry with his proposed 18 per cent gas tax, is ready to vote with the Liberals.

As Clark ponders his inevitable failure, he is visited by an array political players, who propose sleazy compromises. But Clark, too decent for his own political good, will have none of it. 

The play boils down to a series of dialogues between Clark (Philip Riccio) and his colleagues, adversaries and wife, Maureen McTeer. The ancillary characters are portrayed by Christopher Hunt and Jamie Konchak in multiple roles both male and female – all hail wig master Nati Atuan. Text projections identify them and insert sly tidbits of information for those who either can’t remember or are too young to know the details.

Directed by Miles Potter, the players turn on a dime. Konchak delivers the smugness of aspiring power broker and bitter loser Brian Mulroney (Clark defeated him in the leadership race) with aplomb. As McTeer, she’s a compelling personality who might herself have made a great politician had she not so totally loathed the atmosphere on Parliament Hill.

Hunt storms in as finance minister John Crosbie, with an expletive-laced rant, furious that Clark seems so calm in the face of defeat. As Flora MacDonald, he occasionally seems too conscious that he’s in drag. But he triumphs as leader of the opposition, Pierre Trudeau, a preening opportunist who takes pleasure in tormenting the prime minister. Key to the performance is Hunt’s uncanny replication of Trudeau’s vocal cadence and tone.

Healey could have had a field day portraying Clark as a hopeless, naive doofus with a terminal lack of charisma, but, although he blends into the wood-panelled scenery in his brown corduroy suit, his Prime Minister has a passion for rock music, saves the day when it comes to the Iran hostages and actually possesses an element of charm. This is no nerd – he has enthusiastic sex with McTeer on his office desk.

Riccio fully inhabits the character, complete with body language and Clark’s signature tilt of the head.

The play’s conversations are imagined, but based on factual politics of which Healey is a keen observer. He also revels in satire and the piece is often hilarious. Where he misses is in his portrait of a young Stephen Harper who, as a parliamentary aid, becomes a ferocious interlocutor with the prime minister. Harper may be feral, but he was never ferocious, opting for a steely focus and the quick dismissal instead. He’s a cold fish and there’s way too much heat here.

And I wish Healey had acknowledged that Clark defeated MacDonald at the leadership convention in which she received far fewer votes than she was promised. If you’re going to write a takedown of political life and its core value of deceit, you can’t leave that out.

But this is a highly entertaining night at the theatre – not for political junkies only.

susanc@nowtoronto.com | @susangcole

Leave your opinion for the editor...We read everything!

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *