Monday, 8 December 2014

Theatre review: Hope

The Royal Court's Christmas shows tend not to be like other theatres' Christmas shows, and while for the second year running the creative team is writer Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany, this year's offering makes vampires seem positively festive in comparison. Hope follows the year 2014 in the life of the Labour council of an unnamed, working class town (everyone in the cast keeps their own accent, so it could be pretty much anywhere.) The actual business of running the town doesn't get a look-in though, as the Government's austerity measures have seen their budget slashed by £22 million a year, and everyone's primary concern is to determine which essential services have to be cut. Thorne's play identifies Government policy as a cynically genius plan: Slash budgets from the top but leave the details, and all the resulting ill-feeling, to the local, opposition councils.

We mainly follow deputy leader Mark (Paul Higgins,) a recovering alcoholic whose attempts to do the right thing are almost driving him back to the bottle, and who feels his boss Hilary (Stella Gonet, still channeling Margaret Thatcher somewhat in her performance) is dealing with the cuts in too callous, no-nonsense a way.

Hope does look into the personal lives of the councilors - including Mark's on-off relationship with colleague Julie (Sharon Duncan-Brewster,) and her father George (Tom Georgeson,) who was himself a firebrand councilor in the 1970s and views his successor as something of a wet blanket - but it does get rather mired in the technicalities of the cuts. Nobody I know enjoys the meetings they have to go to for their own day jobs, so having more of them served up as entertainment never really works, however much playwrights seem to think it will.

Christine Entwisle provides a typically no-nonsense firebrand as Mark's ex-wife Gina, whose day centre for the mentally disabled faces closure, and whose resistance turns the whole country against the council. The point is, of course, that the council can't win and if she gets her centre an equally worthy cause will lose out, but this theme makes for a disappointingly passive piece of theatre. In keeping with the season's theme of revolution, the first act ends with Sarwan (Rudi Dharmalingam) suggesting a radical way of fighting back, but it never quite raises the second act into any more action.

There's also a disappointing lack of the flair and energy we've come to expect from John Tiffany - there's a couple of scenes of abstract movement that almost seem like a last-ditch attempt to remind you who's behind the show, but nothing that really comes to life, and you'd never guess this was the work of the director of The Pass. The humour promised in the publicity is in short supply, and only really comes in the scenes with Jake (Tommy Knight,) Mark's too-clever-for-his-own-good son. On an impressively realistic recreation of a community hall from Tom Scutt, Hope deals with an important, depressing, no-win situation faced across the country at the moment; but it does so perhaps too accurately, in a bleak and dreary evening.

Hope by Jack Thorne is booking until the 10th of January at the Royal Court's Jerwood Theatre Downstairs.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including interval.

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