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Review: Party Games, New Theatre Cardiff

Party Games cast: Jason Callender as Luke, Matthew Cottle as Prime Minister John Waggner and Natalie Dunne as Anne Waggner (Photo Craig Fuller)

On opening night for “Party Games” at the New Theatre in Cardiff, a few seats remained unoccupied. It made us ponder whether the audience had grown weary of politics after the tumultuous events of the past 18 months.

“Party Games” promises an evening of entertainment and intrigue, showcasing a hilariously acerbic new comedy by Michael McManus, known for “Maggie & Ted,” and directed by Joanna Read.

Playwright Michael McManus brings an insider’s perspective to the narrative, having worked in the Central Office during the tenures of both Margaret Thatcher and John Major, as well as serving as a special adviser to various UK ministers. This background infuses the play with authenticity and insight, providing audiences with a genuine behind-the-scenes look at the machinations of political life.

Party Games cast: Natalie Dunne, Matthew Cottle, Debra Stephenson, Ryan Early and Jason Callender (Photo: Craig Fuller)

Set in 2026, against the backdrop of 10 Downing Street, a hung parliament that must somehow work, the show features newly elected Prime Minister John Waggner, portrayed by Matthew Cottle (known from “Chaplin,” BBC’s “Game On,” ITV’s “Unforgotten,” BBC’s “Citizen Khan,” and Channel 4’s “The Windsors”). The play explores the complexities of human relationships, power dynamics, and the competitive nature of the political environment.

The plot follows the leader of the hastily formed One Nation Party and his wife Anne (Natalie Dunne), along with Deputy Leader Lisa Williams, portrayed by Erica Tavares-Kouassi instead of Debra Stephenson. The cast also includes Chief Whip (William Oxborrow) with his pet tarantula Maggie and Luke (Jason Callender), the ever-loyal and honest advisor, who is unimpressed with spin doctor Seth Dickens (Ryan Early). 

Party Games: Matthew Cottle and Ryan Early (Photo: Craig Fuller)

Dickens is notorious for manipulating data and using Medianne (an Alexa-like device voiced by) to gather information, which he then spins to make the government appear more competent. As they navigate a series of party political games, their true selves are revealed, testing their allegiances. Throughout the night, secrets are uncovered, alliances shift, and tensions escalate, keeping the audience on the edge of their seats.

Themes of ambition, power, and the masks we wear in social settings are woven throughout the show, creating a thought-provoking and engaging experience. What could possibly go wrong with the newly elected PM allowing his spin doctor to take control? And what role does a large spider play in the story?

Several side stories are brought to the audience’s attention through breaking news segments on the ‘TV,’ which is where the lightning truly shines (no pun intended).

Party Games: Krissi Bohn, Matthew Cottle, Jason Callender, Natalie Dunne (Photo: Craig Fuller)

The script is sharp, witty at times and full of surprises, keeping the audience guessing until the very end. The staging is clever and dynamic, with seamless transitions between scenes and set changes that enhance the atmosphere. 

The lighting design by Chris Davey effectively sets the mood, shifting between warm and inviting to cold and sinister as the story unfolds. The transformation from 10 Downing Street to a television screen is particularly impressive. The clever use of sections of the Union Jack to hide and reveal the set is skilled.

Despite its satirical take on UK politics, referencing the Covid pandemic, lockdowns due to weather, and the new 20mph speed restrictions in Wales, the play occasionally drifts into a sad reflection of the world. We did find at times the performance resorts to unnecessary fart jokes, especially with an age guidance of 12 plus. The intriguing concepts may leave the audience uncertain whether to laugh or simply sit in confusion.

Party Games – New Prime Minister John Waggner – Matthew Cottle (Photo: Craig Fuller)

“Party Games” is a riveting and well-crafted production that will make you question your own social interactions and the masks you wear in different settings. With a talented cast, a compelling plot, and creative staging and lighting, this show is a must-see for theatre enthusiasts seeking a funny yet thought-provoking experience.

Lucky theatre goers for the evening performance on Wednesday 22nd May, can take part in a post-show Q&A with playwright Michael McManus, free to all ticket-holders.

Show time: 2 hours 10 minutes including interval.

Age guidance: Ages 12+, contains swearing

With this show only on stage until Friday it’s recommended you book tickets as early as possible. More information about the show and ticket availability can be found here.