Wednesday 11 October 2017

Labour of Love

Noel Coward, London
7th October, 2017, matinee

‘There is no here anymore.’

This play is set in the East Midlands in a Nottingham constituency office. I’m also from and live in the East Midlands. Northern accents and references to ‘being mardy’ and ‘eh up, me duck’ a few minutes into the first scene of James Graham’s new play made me come out in a cold sweat and whisper in horror: ‘Am I northern?!’ I jest – of course. Really, Labour of Love purports to show the everyday life of constituency politics in an ordinary town set away from the glamour of Westminster that was so brilliantly conjured in This House, seen at the Garrick earlier this year. But there is often a worry with the representation of somewhere north of London on the capital’s stage – whether that be the North, the Midlands or Luton – that it comes with a wedge full of stereotypes that are hard to get around. Either that or jokes about stereotypes, or jokes about jokes about stereotypes. Down to earth can often be conflated with dowdiness, and both northern and southern characters can all too easily become sit-com types. I’m not implying that Graham is insensitive in this way as he’s far too talented a playwright for that. But he is interested in the north-south divide and its associations of class and culture, most recently in Ink (now playing next door at the Duke of York’s) and more prominently in This House.

Opening on election night in 2017, and then going back to circa 2010, 2001, mid-late nineties and then 1990, Graham invites us into the lives of constituent MP David Lyons (Martin Freeman), his mostly distant (ex-)wife Elizabeth (Rachael Stirling), and David’s agent Jean with whom he has a love-hate relationship and who basically runs the office (Tamsin Greig). The play charts the changing relationship of those main characters and the fortunes of the Labour Party. In the first act we work our way back from David losing Labour’s approximate 87 year seat all the way to seeing David taking over from the previous MP (also Jean’s husband at the time). In the second act, we move forward through the same five time settings. It’s a neat structure that allows us to map the change from red flag to the more centrist movement of New Labour, to the coalition of chaos, to the party of today when Corbyn’s Labour won more votes than expected (except in this setting). And in a captivating way, the structure almost allows a thriller element as we see David, Jean and Elizabeth at different points in their lives.

Lee Newby’s cunning set design revels in the changing period of the setting. The party emblem, the clock and the portrait of the current Labour leader on the wall change, as do the bulkiness of the TVs, the fashions and the kitchen units. The detail that has gone into this design is pleasing: I don’t think I’ve seen a fax machine working before and at one point it felt like Teletext was going to get a round of applause! The furniture mostly stays the same as does the décor: let’s call it Midland tedium. A foreign businessman remarks how unimpressive it looks. ‘It’s supposed to’, is the gist of the reply, as so to fit in with the rest of the high street. We see said high street on the video screen before the play. It’s lifeless; there are perhaps businesses which are closed down and premises which are empty. Here is a town blighted by a mine closure (which we see in one of the earlier settings) and that has not quite struggled back from 1980s’ politics. It’s not until the last scene when we see how these quick changes in the set are achieved. There are effectively two replica sets on a revolve. I can’t imagine how that might change the dynamic for the cast acting on two sets, but I think it is one idea of many in both the play and the production that made me reflect on the idea of change and stability. Lee Newby’s superb design also allows you to see the work that the Michael Grandage Company’s Futures scheme is doing.

Curious intricacies are not just to be found in the set design. There’s a moment in the 2017 setting when Jean tries to muster up ‘her Carol Vordermann’ whilst doing some Maths – despite Vorderman not having done the numbers for quite some time we still get that it’s a reference to Countdown. Interestingly, in an earlier temporal setting, we see a clip of Vorderman and Richard Whitely in a 90s episode of Countdown on the TV in the background. We also see a bit of John Thaw as Morse – perhaps a nod to Thaw’s Labour leader character in David Hare’s The Absence of War? Maybe not, but parallelisms between Hare’s and Graham’s work certainly exist. And what with Hare’s new play being about the Labour Party on at the NT next year, I can’t help but wonder if there’s a drastic re-write going on somewhere in leafy Hampstead.

Freeman and Greig give masterclass performances in comedy and character development. Over the years, David’s northern accent has returned, Jean has perhaps taken on more of David’s professional ways. As in many plays, the comedy comes from clashes in their personalities and connections arise in their ideological viewpoints, but it’s all so well written and performed that it rarely feels artificial. However, unusual for Graham, there are a few laboursome (I thank you!) jokes and arcs, including an excuse (although not unwelcome) to crack out Freeman’s dance skills.

As in The Vote, there are some very adept, very funny bits of farce that sit comfortably alongside fresh contemporary political gags and hilarious, smart one-liners (such as comparing the Labour party’s up and downs to Ken Clark’s cholesterol). Jeremy Herrin’s production ticks all the boxes and is excellently stage-managed. But it doesn’t quite feel like it has the Headlong stamp on it of going the extra mile. Then again, I feel that suits the play. In This House, politics was all about a fast-paced lifestyle of vote counting, chauffeurs and drinking, whereas in Labour of Love, politics is about dog shit. In saying that Herrin’s production reflects that, I’m not calling it dog shit – you have to go to the Vaudeville for that! (Again, I jest) – it’s more about the production deliberately wanting to show a different side of the political lifestyle.

It may not have the vigour of previous Graham plays but I’m glad it’s on a major stage (although I would also like to see it in a regional theatre). Labour of Love is a delicious new play, enjoyable and interesting and with two very rounded central characters. But I’m not sure what it offers in terms of Labour’s future. Other than perhaps that Tamsin Greig should become an MP.

Labour of Love plays at the Noel Coward Theatre until 2nd December.
Martin Freeman and Tamsin Greig in Labour of Love. Credit: Johan Persson

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