Philip Riccio. Set design by Steve Lucas. Lighting design by Nick Blais. Projection design by Scott Reid. Costume design by Jennifer Lee Arsenault. Photo by Dahlia Katz.
The 1979 Group presents Michael Healey’s 1979, a razor-sharp, satirical look at Joe Clark’s brief tenure as Prime Minister, the budget vote that was the beginning of the end for his minority Progressive Conservative government, and the shift in Canadian Conservative politics—directed by Miles Potter and running at the Berkeley Street Theatre Downstairs.
Set in the Prime Minister’s impressive wood-panelled office (set by Steve Lucas, with lighting by Nick Blais), 1979 imagines the events around December 11, 1979—the fateful day the new Progressive Conservative government presented its first budget. It’s a big day for fledgling PM Joe Clark—the “nobody” from Alberta who beat Pierre Trudeau and the Liberals in the June 1979 election (though it could easily be argued it was a rejection of Trudeau and the Liberals, as opposed to an outright win). Clark’s minority government is scrambling for numbers on the budget vote (which includes a widely hated gas tax) amidst a Liberal opposition coalition with the NDP, and assholes among its own ranks. And on top of that, Clark and his Minister of External Affairs Flora MacDonald are coordinating an extremely sensitive life and death mission with the CIA to sneak six Americans out of the Canadian embassy in Tehran and get them safely back home.
A hilarious, quick-paced distillation of events and the political climate of the time, 1979 both embraces and parodies its real-life characters. Philip Riccio gives a classic comic straight man performance as Clark, suitably outfitted in a bland light brown corduroy suit (costumes by Jennifer Lee Arsenault). There’s an exterior calm that belies the screaming frustration within, as he patiently endures constant interruptions from various Parliament Hill colleagues throughout, finally getting a brief moment of respite and privacy when his wife Maureen McTeer drops by. Determined to do good for everyone in Canada—and not just those who voted for him—he eschews political gamesmanship for doing what’s right. Undervalued, underestimated and ignored, Clark perseveres even at the risk of losing his job and his party’s re-election.
Christopher Hunt and Jamie Konchak do a remarkable job playing the cast of characters (of both genders) who burst in and out of Clark’s office; brilliantly supported by Arsenault’s artful costuming, including some impressive quick changes. Most notably, Hunt gives hysterical performances as the bombastic, hyper-tense, sewer-mouthed John Crosby, bursting through the door like an angry bull, sweating over the budget; and a perfectly self-absorbed, flamboyant and arrogant Pierre Trudeau, as much in love with his own celebrity as he is with the acquisition of power (accompanied with hilarious groovy-ness by Thomas Geddes’ sound design). Konchak is a plucky delight as the warm, smart and savvy Flora MacDonald; as well as Clark’s lovely wife McTeer, who’s navigating bar exams while supporting him personally and professionally. Konchak also brings us shades of things to come for the Conservative Party, with her slick, shrewd leader-in-waiting Brian Mulroney; and a wide-eyed, awkward young Stephen Harper, included in a scene of artistic licence—a harbinger of the self-serving, politics-spewing Conservative Party of Canada on the horizon.
Even if you’re not up on Canadian political history, 1979 is an entertaining and eye-opening trip, supported by projected text (projection design by Scott Reid), as well as a timeline at the back of the program, that will keep you up to speed about who’s who and what’s what on Parliament Hill. Encapsulating the political climate of the time with irreverence and astute observation, the play serves as a chilling remembrance of the death of “Progressive” for the Conservative Party of Canada, and the fact that Clark—a man who seems to be too decent for a political career in this environment—was steamrollered by a system that values politics over policy, and a party that was veering right of centre.
1979 continues at the Berkeley Street Theatre Downstairs until January 27; advance tickets available online or by calling the box office at 416-368-3110.