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Following his hugely successful This House, playwright James Graham continues to chronicle the fortunes of Britain’s Labour Party in Labour of Love. Given the current turmoil in the country’s political life, it’s an extremely valid subject. But the new play is an odd animal, perfectly entertaining, yet awkwardly balanced between history lesson, political critique and soft-centered comic romance.
It opens bang up to date, on the night of the 2017 general election. After 27 years, Labour MP David Lyons (Martin Freeman) is contemplating the imminent loss of his supposedly “safe” seat in what was once his party’s northern heartland.
Keeping him company in the rather shabby constituency office is David’s party agent Jean Whittaker (Tamsin Greig). His right-hand woman is dutifully preparing him for the worst, as the pair reflect on how they’re about to miss out on Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s surprisingly good election (albeit one that falls short of actual victory).
They’re an odd couple: he Oxford-educated, stiff, anxious, given all of Freeman’s trademark earnestness; she working class, down-to-earth, blunt. It’s unclear at this stage if they even like each other; when she offers him a compassionate hug, both approach the gesture like a bad rash.
Just as they finally decide to leave for the declaration of the vote, David’s estranged and long-absent wife Elizabeth (Rachael Stirling) bursts into the room with a shock proposal. And then the scene ends and Graham embarks on a passage back in time — through different election nights and other key events in David’s life as a constituency MP, through his personal hopes and disappointments and Labour’s topsy-turvy history, all the way back to the ’80s.
The setting always remains the constituency office, the period denoted by a change in decor, style of television set, the portrait of the Labour leader hanging on the wall, and the hairstyles and clothes of the actors. The other principle character will be Len Prior (Dickon Tyrrell), a member of the constituency, further to the left of the party than Lyons, and a rival to the MP both politically and in love.
Graham’s theme is the age-old tensions within the Labour Party between the modernizers and the traditionalists, the center and the left, southerners and northerners; his thesis, voiced by David, is that when the party comes to power it’s through the center, whose successes are denied or resented by the rank and file.
The problem is that the analysis is hardly new, and is quickly made; moreover, Graham doesn’t satisfactorily suggest how Corbyn’s left-leaning Labour project, currently on a high, will fit into the picture — making the up-to-the-minute aspect of the play rather redundant. What that leaves is the marrying of the political with the personal.
David is very much in Tony Blair’s reforming camp, which puts him at odds with Prior and, to some extent, Jean. As Graham stops his passage into the past, turns around and retreads his path back to the present, he sows a seed between David and Jean that tentatively suggests a political compromise, as well as developing love. And yet while that sounds like a plan with dramatic dividends, it doesn’t really pay off: the shifts in time become tiresome and sometimes confusing, and the broad comic tone — with lots of hearty swearing, sudden entrances, delayed responses and cheesy wordplay — seems at odds with the seriousness of the themes.
As a result, while we laugh a great deal — particularly with Greig, who gobbles up the best lines and creates a very funny, very endearing character — the piece feels parochial and a little hollow.
Despite her efforts to inject some nuance, Stirling’s posh and inconstant wife, who has only ever dreamed of life in Westminster with other champagne socialists, feels too schematic. The most potent scene in the play involves David and Len taking off the gloves for a truly vicious ideological row, reminding us that one of the deepest internecine divides in politics isn’t going away any time soon.
Venue: Noel Coward Theater, London
Cast: Martin Freeman, Tamsin Greig, Rachael Stirling, Dickon Tyrrell, Susan Wokoma, KwongLoke
Director: Jeremy Herrin
Playwright: James Graham
Set and lighting designer: Lee Newby
Lighting designer: Neil Austin
Sound designer: Paul Arditti
Video and projection designer: Duncan McLean
Presented by: Michael Grandage Company, Headlong
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