Labour of Love

Posted by Laurence Green

laurence Green reviews James Graham's timely, topical and thought-provoking work new play, Labour of Love.

Labour of Love

The thorny relationships that are the essence of political life are probed by James Graham in his new play Labour of Love (Noël Coward Theatre), directed by Jeremy Herrin.

The setting is a dreary Labour constituency office in Nottinghamshire – the kind of room whose walls haven’t been painted since the place was built and whose filing cabinets won’t open without a kick. The story centres on the relationship between an ambitious MP and his idealistic agent, but also traces the history of Labour party of the last quarter of a century. When the action begins in June this year, the Blairite MP David Lyons is on the verge of losing his safe seat and we chart Lyon’s career and crises since he became MP nearly 30 years ago.

But at its heart, this is a play about the contrasting sides of the Labour party – the idealistic left and the pragmatic right, embodied by his agent, Jean Whittaker. Lyons cares about modernisation and ‘electability’, whilst Whittaker cares about principles and her community. Set away from the Westminster babble, in the party’s traditional northern heartlands, the drama develops into a clash of philosophy, culture and class.

As we travel back to the early nineties and the forward again to the present, the characters articulate their conflicting political views in ways that never feel forced or didactic, whilst news footage to stir the audience’s nostalgia is projected on the back screens, through Tony Blair’s 1997 Labour victory, the confusions of the 2010 hung parliament that the conservatives and Lib-Dems led, to this year’s snap general election and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn as Leader.

This is a play which is never as sharp or funny as Graham’s last work, This House, and at almost three hours would benefit from some trimming. Several of the weak satirical jokes feel like they’ve come from old episodes of Have I Got News For you, the few plot turns there are, feel contrived and the love story which also comes to play feels like something of an afterthought. But the production comes together in the second half and eventually gets to the heart of Labour’s decades long civil war.

Herrin draws commendable performances from his top-flight cast. Tamsin Greig, who took on the role Jean Whittaker when Sarah Lancashire withdrew on doctors orders is particularly impressive, fiery and abrupt, yet with a hint of vulnerability, she is unable to conceal between the sarcastic barbs. Martin Freeman meanwhile, perfectly captures David Lyon’s mix of playfulness and sincerity as the more placid of the two while Rachael Stirling is suitably imposing as Lyons’s Tory wife, Elizabeth.

Overall, though, despite its flaws, this is at least a timely, topical and thought-provoking work.

Labour of Love

Playing at the Noël Coward Theatre until 2 December 2017

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