Review: Michael Healey’s 1979 is cut from principled political cloth

If one takes nothing else from Michael Healey’s political satire 1979, now at the Great Canadian Theatre Company, it will be gratitude that brown corduroy has vanished from the Canadian male’s wardrobe.

Former Prime Minister Joe Clark, whose deeply held principles and Red Toryism are at the centre of Healey’s play, likes brown corduroy. His suit is made of the dreary stuff, and he seems oblivious to the fact that it makes him almost indistinguishable from the forest of brown wood that comprises the prime ministerial office, the locale of Healey’s part truth/part-fictional show.

But while other characters shimmer with fancier dress and personal verve, it’s Clark, played with suitably plodding earnestness by Sanjay Talwar, who commands our respect and ultimately endures in our memories even if we once all referred to him as “Joe who?”.

Healey’s subject is the evening of Dec. 12, 1979. That was when Progressive Conservative leader Joe Clark, who’d beaten Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals in a federal election the previous spring, overrode the advice of pretty much everyone in his party to present an austerity budget. The PCs held a minority in the House of Commons and the budget triggered a non-confidence vote that brought the government down. An election followed, and Trudeau swept the Liberals back into power, putting paid to Clark’s brief reign as PM.

While Healey uses a screen to present facts and figures like the number of seats held by various parties (the populist Social Credit gang being one of many flashes of nostalgia in 1979), the playwright manufactures much of that fateful evening.

A hyperactive John Crosbie, Minister of Finance, careens in and out of the PM’s office. He’s played by Kelly Wong who doubles up on other roles like the rose-in-his-buttonhole Trudeau and a pancake makeup-laden Flora MacDonald, who was Clark’s foreign minister and died in 2015.

Marion Day also does multiple duty. She plays, among others, Clark’s prodding wife Maureen McTeer and a nasty Brian Mulroney, still smarting from his defeat by Clark in the PC leadership race three years earlier. More ominously, she depicts a young Stephen Harper who shows up in Clark’s office to deliver a message but sticks around to lay out his admiration for Margaret Thatcher and his vision for Canadian politics. Healey made Harper the focus of Proud, at GCTC in 2103.

Harper’s appearance in 1979 drives home Healey’s real concern: the death of moderate conservatism that Clark represented and Clark’s belief – it seems so quaint in our fragmented era that coughs up the likes of Kevin O’Leary and Kellie Leitch – that a leader should govern for all even if elected by only a segment of the population.

This Clark is deeply principled. He knows he has little likelihood of surviving the budget but forges ahead because he believes to do otherwise would be to abandon what the financially troubled country needs: short-term pain like a steep, new gasoline tax to ensure long-term gain.

He also understands the ephemeral. “Power is a proxy for life itself … losing it is too much like death,” he says, giving him a wise perspective that escapes all but, perhaps, the slightly enigmatic figure of MacDonald. When Healey, at the end of the play, vaults into the mid-2000s, Clark’s words echo in our ears.

So what to make of all this?

For starters, it’s doubtful 1979 will become a staple of national theatre even if it is moving to the Shaw Festival next month. Its love affair with the minutiae of Canadian politics won’t keep many theatre goers on the edge of their seats.

And how relevant is much of this subject matter if Healey feels compelled to flash on that big screen the reminder that Ed Broadbent, once a force to be reckoned with, was the long-time leader of the New Democratic Party? Time does march on.

As well, while director Eric Coates moves proceedings along at a quick and often very funny clip and the performers have their game down pat, the play’s desert-like spots clog up things. And funhouse figures such as Crosbie really do overstay their welcome.

It’s not quite brown corduroy, but 1979 isn’t cut from a winning cloth either.

1979 is a GCTC co-production with the Shaw Festival. It was reviewed Thursday. At GCTC until April 30. Tickets:


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Patrick Langston covered English professional theatre for the Ottawa Citizen from 2008 to 2016. He also wrote about music, travel, the local housing industry and other subjects for the paper. Patrick continues to contribute to Ottawa Magazine, Diplomat and International Canada Magazine, and other publications.