Labour of Love
Noel Coward Theatre.
4 October 2017
This week the National Theatre announced its season for 2018 and beyond, including a new play for autumn 2018 by David Hare in which he examines the Labour party. He will have to go some way to retain the relevance of that topic given the current dominance of politico satirist James Graham, whose pin point sharpness dismantles 27 years of Labour strife in Labour of Love. The play follows the fortunes of fictional MP David Lyons, from being parachuted into a safe Labour constituency in the East Midlands, and his turbulent relationship with constituency agent Jean Whittaker. They represent old and New Labour, he metrosexual and in a Westminster bubble, she down to earth, folksy and fierce in her principles, both learning to compromise to gain power, but always at odds as the ideals of Socialism are challenged and modified.
Beginning on the night of the 2017 election, Lyons is about to lose his seat, for the first time in history the constituency is about to go Tory. The play then travels back to his first entrance into the office as a newly selected MP in 1990. The genius of Graham’s script is that the second half then goes forward, and we see subsequent events unfold in each scene already visited. It provides a satisfying completeness, and projections of news events create a deep nostalgia- who thought Teletext would be greeted with audible fondness?
Under Jeremy Herrin’s slick direction, Martin Freeman and Tamsin Greig are a delight, the Beatrice and Benedict of the Ballot Box. Jean was originally to be played by Sarah Lancashire, who sadly had to withdraw on medical advice, and her speech patterns can be heard in Graham’s dialectic rhythms. But have no worries, Grieg makes the part her own, and she is, quite simply, brilliant. Nailing the East Mids accent, she has a gift for conveying deep vulnerability and extreme bolshiness at the same time, throwing out devastating one liners with shattering accuracy, most of them at the expense of Lyons. As excellent as Grieg, Martin Freeman achieves the almost impossible in making an MP loveable, he is particularly fine at taking the abuse thrown at him, but also convinces us that Lyons cares deeply about people and principles. I would have liked to have seen more of Rachael Stirling’s acid tongued Cherie Booth type Elizabeth, Lyon’s deeply unhappy wife, but she makes the most of a possibly underwritten role. Dickon Tyrrell is excellent as the treacherous Militant Len, and Susan Wokoma and Kwong Loke provide alternative viewpoints to complete a fine ensemble.
Beautifully researched, the play never preaches as the characters are so real and enjoyable. Much as your Leftie heart will break at the self destructive patterns of the Labour movement, Graham also repairs it with the other half of the title- Love. Here he finds his inner Richard Curtis, and it’s a tribute to the superlative acting of Freeman and Grieg, who are having a ball up there on stage, that the play just about manages to avoid sliding into corniness. Her love for her flip chart is also beautifully conveyed! Put it on the ballot paper for Play of the Year!