“Labour of Love” by James Graham
at The Noel Coward Theatre
5th November, 2017
“What’s happening is if you’re Northern, you’re getting butchered, it’s like Game of f—ing Thrones.”
Continuing my James Graham fest, “Labour of Love” did not fail to disappoint despite the formulaic and predictable narrative.
Admittedly, I hesitated booking for what seemed to be a comedy about the Labour Party, but faced with a dish of a co-production between the Michael Grandage Company and Headlong, and directed byJeremy Herrin, together with a Tamsin Grieg topping, I looked forward to a feast.
Labour of Love tells the story of Blairite Labour MP, David Lyons (Martin Freeman) and his politically idealistic agent Jean ( Tamsin Greig). The conceit is that we begin on election night 2017and work backwards past the Coalition years and expenses scandal, the 2001 election and the 1994 Labour leadership campaign, to Thatcher’s resignation in 1990. Right now, it looks as though Lyons may lose his North Nottinghamshire constituency seat, once regarded as safe – seat, evidently modelled on Mansfield, which saw a shock swing to the Tories this summer for the first time in its parliamentary history.
Greig sustains an acerbic tongue of the leftist, Jean, whose survival credentials as a fierce mother-of-five. The comic lines come thick and fast, with quips such as referring to the Tories as “posh squirrels fighting in a bag”. One wonders how a Tory-carrying card would react to that. Freeman’s David Lyons is played affably as one who is caught in the trap between an eagerness for power and the relentless stream of complaints from his constituents. On the other hand, Susan Wokoma (an activist whose credentials are designed to mimic Diana Abbott) and Dickon Tyrrell (another Labour activist) never really have the chance to shine.
Herrin uses news reels and pop songs to rewind through the years. Duncan McLean’s video projections send us down memory lane with the news footage and the speeches of the era we are travelling through. Equally, we spool back in time to significant moments in the history of David’s life and of the Labour party, ending up with his arrival andidealistic views in post in 1990. The transition of time is achieved by the help of little adjustments to Lee Newby’s cluttered office set – each election poster carefully displayed on the wall. bouffant hairstyles of the early 90s diminish and grey; flat screens replace fax machines in the same shabby office; and the framed photo of a different Labour leader hangs on the wall with each flashback.
Labour of Love is flawed. David’s wife, Elizabeth (Rachel Rogers) over performs in her caricature, almost irritating lawyer role of a Cherie Blair facsimile.
As play’s title suggests, this is both a history of the Labour party and a love story, with latter seeming improbable and contrived. The two provide an ideal metaphor for the recurrent split in the Labour party: David and Jean are designed to represent the rift between ideology and pragmatism. And as the title further suggests, political duty is something done for pleasure rather than gain.
The close does lapses into farce as the unexpressed love between David and Jean surface. One letter is sent to the wrong person and another, written in code, makes sense only when read backwards. All this seems to imply that the feelings of David and Jean are a metaphor for a way forward for the party. Yet the satirical production gets my vote with comedy which is at best of times, deliciously absurd.