Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Theatre review: Labour of Love

A later-than-planned trip to the second of three James Graham premieres this year: When Sarah Lancashire had to pull out of Labour of Love due to illness, a number of performances were cancelled, including the one I'd originally booked for. The rescheduled trip proves well worth the wait though, and Lancashire's late replacement Future Dame Tamsin Greig is nobody's idea of second best. She plays Jean Whittaker, constituency agent for a Nottinghamshire seat so safe that it's never not gone to Labour in its history ("a tub of cottage cheese could win it.") That could change in the 2017 election though as, with Jeremy Corbyn's Labour making unexpected gains, this looks like being the one place to buck the trend: They're on their second recount and, after 27 years in the job, David Lyons (Martin Freeman) looks set to lose his seat to the Conservatives.

His loss could be less down to his own performance and more to local party politics, as an independent candidate who started off in his own party may have split his vote; an apt conclusion for a story about how infighting over what Labour should really stand for has always been at the core of the party.

The play is set entirely in the high street constituency office, but it has many transformations in store, as the first act plays out in reverse, Lee Newby's set revolving to take us back to 2011 and the Coalition, 2001 and Tony Blair's second victory, and the critical moment in 1994 when Blair was elected leader of the party, signalling a decision to pursue a more centrist stance and become credible as a ruling party. Eventually we reach 1990 and David taking over the seat in a by-election: This is when we discover that the previous incumbent was Jean's first husband, who had to stand down as he was dying of a coal mining-related illness.

As last year's sorely-underrated Monster Raving Loony proved, Graham knows his comedy as well as he knows his politics, and Labour of Love proves it with a crowd-pleasing opening as Greig's frazzled Jean spars with David, coming up with some very creative swearing and memorably describing a bisexual ("she both licks and sucks and she's the happiest person I know.") The gags can be a bit sitcom at times, notably when they try to woo a Chinese businessman (Kwong Loke) to bring his new factory to the area, but the hit rate is good - at one point I wondered if a reference to the Winter of Discontent was a specific nod at the casting of Freeman, whose last West End role was as Richard III in a production that centred on that specific quote.

Freeman and Greig are surrounded by a strong supporting cast, notably Rachael Stirling as David's none-more-New Labour wife Elizabeth: Horsey, patronising and ruthlessly ambitious, as a character she's a bit of a blunt instrument, but it's worth it for one of the evening's best and most jaw-dropping gags, when she misinterprets Jean's request for legal advice in her husband's case. Contrasting with the MP is Dickon Tyrrell's local council leader Len, the voice of Old Labour who'd seemingly rather Labour never won power than give up a single hard-left principle; and Susan Wokoma rounds out the cast as the earnest Margot, growing in ambition and being quietly groomed over the years to become David's successor.

But its central couple are the heart of Jeremy Herrin's production. Graham's play takes its structure from the "mirror poems" Jean learns about at the Open University (another Labour innovation,) and in the second act we move forwards in time again, through all the periods we've visited, back to the present day. Along the way the message is clear about the conflict between old and new Labour that's often been the party's downfall, and Jean emerges as the real hope for the future: Wedded to the original principles but not too stubborn to see that they can't help anyone if they're never in power.

I was less sold on the literal love story between David and Jean. Although the relationship between them is strongly built throughout the play, its actual turn to romance felt a little bit tacked on to me. Still, Freeman's low-key sincerity and Greig's fire make the play's last-minute transformation into Much Ado About Nothing pretty much come off, to the point that while I've always regretted missing Greig's Beatrice, I felt like I got the next best thing here. And one crowd-pleasing twist that didn't quite work for me isn't enough to stop this being a show that got the audience into the palm of its hand from the start (wow, some people really loved Teletext...) and keeps them there even as it makes its more serious points.

Labour of Love by James Graham is booking until the 2nd of December at the Noël Coward Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 55 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Johan Persson.

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