“Boris the Third”, Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2022

Jeremy Malies at Pleasance Courtyard
9 September 2022

This is a school play-within-a-play with a difference and not just because the school is Eton. The group Something for the Weekend, boasting the chameleon that is RADA-trained Harry Kershaw, have noted the delicious fact that as an 18-year-old, Boris Johnson played the title character in a production of Richard III.

From this starting point, the endless seam of potential satire must have been self-evident, but writer and director Adam Meggido taps into it with a relish and savagery that is almost Swiftean though leavened with much subtle social observation.

I hope this play has a London run. It’s hardly a plot spoiler to say that the merits of true teamwork and working on a common endeavour (more important in theatre than in most walks of life) prove contemptable for the young Boris. Having spent a weekend away when the rest of the group have been learning their lines, he tells fellow cast members: “You all knew what kind of person I was when you gave me the part.”

Richard himself tells us that he is unable to “caper nimbly in a lady’s chamber to the lascivious pleasing of a lute.” He is “not shaped for sportive tricks”. Boris is not unshapely but is already characteristically dishevelled.  The music here, pleasing for me at least, begins with “Tainted Love” by “Soft Cell”, a chart-topper during the summer of the Falklands War which is the backdrop to both the play and the play-within-a-play which pits the House of York against General Galtieri.

There are several wonderful running gags. Unable to remember much of what he should have learned, Boris proves adept at shoehorning well known quotations from other Shakespeare plays into the dialogue when he is not quoting Tacitus or trotting out somewhat mangled Latin tags.

“Was ever woman in this humour wooed?” Hilariously, Boris has been out of college during the crucial weekend seducing his girlfriend’s sister in the back of her squaddie boyfriend’s car. “You were reading your lines off her tits, were you?” says the interloper working-class boyfriend who is seeing his friends come back from South Georgia in body bags and knows he will soon be sent there. Poppy Winter plays the two sisters, doubles effectively, and is so impressive in brief snatches as both Lady Anne and Queen Margaret that you wish she could do more of the keynote verse.

Kershaw nails the voice and body language; his mimicry has us thinking forward to those unforgettable Covid press conferences and Partygate grovelling. “I’m here now and ready to crack on … I adapted the rules of engagement … I give you all my complete assurance … Good question and I’m glad you asked it.” Another repeated motif is that Boris has pinned his speeches to props on the set (design by Alex Marker) which of course disintegrate with split-second physical comedy as soon as he approaches them.

Vaulting ambition sees Bojo already riding roughshod over his contemporaries who come across as sharp-elbowed themselves but not in Johnson’s league or not quite willing (yet) to sink to his depths. They know that this is a Godzilla in the ego stakes. “You spread your wings but you clipped all of ours!”

The theme of the ambition to be world king gets a predictable run-out, and we learn that a good showing in the play will help him to become captain of school. Even the essentially decent student director played by Phoebe Ellabani (“Am I being sufficiently experimental?) knows that she can climb the greasy pole that is success in the theatre industry if she can wow the influential parents in the audience.

Meggido stresses the Christopher Hitchens thesis that being able to make a woman laugh confers an almost Darwinian advantage. The girls in the play loathe Johnson for his flagrant dishonesty but keep returning for the wisecracks and bluster.

It’s made obvious that the play is being performed in the college’s cloisters but as Rhonda, the adult black theatre practitioner brought in from outside to marshal the young actors, Lorna Lowe says: “I’ve stage-managed professional shows with a fraction of this budget.” Johnson’s use of the word ‘piccaninnies’ is also referenced. The pupils persist in asking Rhonda where she is really from when she answers repeatedly: “Wandsworth!” They buy her a bottle of Jamaican rum as a thank you present. Lowe does impressive work when she finally button-holes Johnson with: “The clown has license to speak nonsense to the king, but the king can’t be a clown!”

The abiding memories are of Johnson soft-soaping questions from anybody in authority over him or able to scrutinize him in any way. “You can’t wing this!” he is told by a pal when it becomes inevitable that the headmaster will grill him about an unauthorized knees-up in a dorm or whatever living quarters they have at Eton. “All school regulations were followed – I wasn’t aware that it was a party.”

I can’t have been alone in thinking with relish about the forthcoming enquiries looming over Johnson when even a scintilla of a lie will be as serious as full-on perjury in a court of law. Meggido does justice to the man’s sophistry, verbal dexterity and lack of shame. I wish this lovely play had been given more marketing heft and gained greater media traction.