REVIEW: Hope, Jerwood Theatre Downstairs ✭✭

Hope at Jerwood Theatre Downstairs

Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, Royal Court
9 December 2014
2 Stars

A member of the local council is talking to one of her constituents at a surgery. The constituent, Laura, is a cheerful young woman, one who suffers with Down’s syndrome, who is trying to make the most of her life. She lives at home and loves that. But she doesn’t want to be with her parents 24 hours a day. As she rightly says, who would? With brutal honesty, but no judgment, she recounts the tale of her mistreatment by the manager of the McDonalds store where she once worked. As she articulates her humiliation at his hands, you see, with total clarity, how crucial to her quality of life the Day Centre is. A refuge from the trap in which she lives; a trap Society has laid. A place to release her anxieties and tensions, to laugh and relax.

How could any right-minded arm of Government refuse to fund such a Day Centre?

Laura’s fear, the possibility of the closure of the Day Centre, is one of the key issues in Jack Thorne’s new play, Hope, John Tiffany’s premiere production of which is now playing at the Royal Court. It’s about as topical and political a play as one could imagine, focussing on the effects of Government by austerity, the unreliable shambles and double-dealing that characterise the membership and structure of the major political parties and the raw, bitter truth that lobbying is the undeniable cancer of the modern political era.

But Laura’s poignant plight aside, this is a play more polemic than personal. None of the lead characters have any warmth, at least as played here, so there is real difficulty in engaging with their entwinement in the politics and the power. As my companion wisely put it: “I can see that on Newsnight any day of the week”.


Although this is not a verbatim play, or a document-drama, it does have that “slice of reality” feel; but, and this is a fundamental thing, it lacks theatricality and vision. The question is whether it is the writing or the production which accounts for that.

The scene with Laura and a handful of other scenes – the Deputy Council leader’s awkward chat with his son about sex and online activities; the on-off lover of the Deputy Council leader’s late night/early morning chat with her grumpy father – suggest an honesty and candour about situation and character on Thorne’s part which reveals good understanding of writing for theatre. And Thorne has a pretty good track-record as a writer of theatre.

But the bulk of the play is either trite or full of pertinent information. The passages become about types of political people and the intricate details of party politicking, budgetary considerations, pressure from the media and interest groups and the impossibility of pleasing all of the people all of the time.

By the end, it seems the message is simply that everyone must try to make a difference and that failure to succeed at making change should be accepted as part of the political process, which is some sort of wheel of very bad karma.

The difficulties with the dry and disconnected (from the audience) text are only exacerbated by the casting and the production. This is particularly strange given John Tiffany’s great and recent success in making difficult texts accessible and enthralling: Let The Right One In or The Glass Menagerie (on Broadway) for example.

Tom Scutt’s design is certainly part of the problem, not because it is especially bad, but because it does not really allow the heart of the piece (if it has that) to emerge. It closes down the chance of any warmth emerging. This is because, rather than flitting from place to place, home to home, parkland to bed, the set is a true evocation of a local Town Hall interior. There is a wooden floor, a stage at one end from which speeches can be made, and the kind of blank furniture one knows instinctively to be Governmental. All of this is fine in the sense that you understand that everything that happens in the play is framed by the presence of the Council which dominates, one way or another, the lives of most of the characters. It even permits a kind of Punch and Judy notion to form in the mind, a commentary on the idiocy of the political process, how it inevitably involves one side punching the other side into submission.

But the downside is that the set denies intimacy to all of the scenes which take place in settings not inside the Town Hall; for example, it is not possible to react to a scene of two lovers in bed where the bed is merely suggested on the floor of the Town Hall the same way as you would if the scene was played out in a private bedroom. The setting reduces the ability to connect and, equally, suggests a frisson of wildness which is false – because the pair did not actually have sex on the floor of the Town Hall.

The acting does not assist either.

Although there is much to admire in Jo Eastwood’s delightful Laura, Tom Georgeson’s grumpy weed-smoking George and Tommy Knight’s straight-talking and precocious Jake, with one exception the rest of the cast does not ascend beyond the level of cipher.

Stella Gonet’s Thatcher-esque, foul-mouthed Labour leader of the Council; Paul Higgins’ dull, bad father, bad Deputy Leader, Mark ; Julie, George’s confused part-time lover of Mark; Christine Entwisle’s angry but passionate ex-wife of Mark, Gina, a vocal and dissident Council member – all of these characters have, essentially, the charisma and complexity of a cold sausage roll. None are appealing and it really is impossible to care a jot for what might happen to any of them.

Only Rudi Dharmalingam as Sarwan, the Muslim Councillor who is forthright and tactical, manages the high-wire walk between the page and the person – he is the one leading character who seems more than one dimensional.

Political plays are important, even ones that are as depressing and clinical as Thorne’s attempt here; but it is critical that authors and directors remember to put the “play” into the phrase “political play”. The play’s the thing – wherein to catch the conscience of an audience.

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