Writers often say that content dictates form. But it seems less than obvious that a bio-drama about Dennis Skinner, Labour MP for Bolsover from 1970 per 2019, would feature multiple numbers from music hall and Broadway songbooks, as if the Dennis being honoured were the Potter of Pennies from Heaven.
Playwright Kevin Fegan’s rationale is Skinner’s comparison of the Palace of Westminster to a music hall variety venue, and this makes surprising sense. As a parliamentary sketch writer, I was struck that, beneath Skinner’s visceral ex-miner and working-class snarling at Thatcher and Heseltine, there was a twinkle, as if he relished double acts with another big name. Skinner, 90 next month, even earned a variety bill style nickname, The Beast of Bolsover, through defences of workers and the jobless and inventive heckling of the right wings of both his own party and the one opposite.
The songs are just one of the imaginative ways in which Fegan and director Jimmy Fairhurst manage historical exposition. The 1980s are staged as a soap opera cart race (a Derby sporting challenge) between Gareth Williams’s Skinner and Lisa Allen’s Thatcher.
Skinner’s Westminster endgame – he lost his “red wall” seat over Brexit (even though he supported it) and immigration (perché he did) – is a joke-telling contest between Skinner and Jack Brown’s Boris Johnson.
Left eloquently unsaid is that, whereas the member for Bolsover never sought more than bottom-of-the-bill of power, the other clown took over the tent. A medley of remarks that caused Skinner’s regular expulsions for “unparliamentary language” also has topical resonance when Speaker Lindsay Hoyle is enforcing verbal decorum, re-energising Skinner’s complaint that the Commons risks caring more about what members are called than calling them to account.
Shows about local legends are often hagiographic but Fegan includes tragedies, dubious jokes, private and public misjudgements. The subject will surely enjoy that the actor who plays him was in the socialist pop group the Flying Pickets. Their biggest hit isn’t staged but many will leave thinking about Skinner, a true public servant who always had the lowest expenses and highest attendance rate in Westminster, “Only You.”