Thursday 30 November 2017

Labour of Love in the West End, or, Ultimately Ducking the Question

Note: A review of the matinee on Saturday 25th November 2017.

In advance of this show I was disposed to like it having been strongly impressed by James Graham's This House at the National and Ink at the Almeida. Interesting issues are raised and there are some funny moments, but ultimately Graham can't quite decide whether he is writing a political drama or a romantic comedy, and ducks the final hard question.

The play tracks Labour MP for Ashfield, David Lyons, backwards from his 2017 election defeat to his first by-election victory in the late 80s, and then forward again to 2017 in Act Two. Graham's structuring is certainly clever and brave, but it doesn't pack the emotional punch of Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along say – though granted that simply goes back in time. Graham doesn't quite find the richness that a truly great use of such a structure could yield where lines or interactions sting in different ways depending on the period, and where all the characters are completely convincing creations whose changing nature we understand better for having followed them in this way.

Part of the issue here is the unevenness of the character writing. Graham is on strongest ground with Martin Freeman's Lyons – and Freeman also ages most convincingly backwards and forwards. There are many strong aspects to the writing of Tamsin Greig's Jean, but she ages less convincingly, and I did not believe in their claimed age difference or her never seen five children. Rachael Stirling meanwhile is sadly stuck with the weak role of Lyons's wife Elizabeth – I've seen her give fine performances on other occasions but she can't salvage this role from the caricature which has been written. In particular, Graham never sufficiently establishes why Elizabeth and David ever got together in the first place – which means the marital breakdown just lacks punch. There's some nice supporting work from Dickon Tyrrell's Len – but again crucial elements are left underwritten.

The larger issue, though, is the attempt to make a hybrid political drama/romantic comedy. As political drama this is a much less perceptive play than the Donmar's recent Limehouse – an interesting instance where a narrower chronological focus actually allowed for wider thematic implications. It's most entertaining in revisiting the New Labour/Old Labour debates of the 90s and early 2000s, but I didn't think it found anything especially fresh to say about those debates. In a way, it was actually more interesting (probably the only time you will hear me say this) to revisit the archive video footage (excellent work from Duncan Mclean) – not least as a reminder for me of the depressing decline in the quality of our political leadership from the 80s to the present. The biggest problem occurs in the final scene. There is not, in my view, a simple solution to the situation either the country or the Labour Party is currently in – Graham however unconvincingly advances one, and quickly switches the focus to the romance – and the romance has less power than it might do because of the weaknesses elsewhere.

Graham also tries too hard for laughs at times, and director Jeremy Herrin has let the actors too often play to the gallery. As noted this is in places a funny play, but not sufficiently overall to compensate for the way playing to the gallery slightly undermines the conviction of the drama.

Otherwise, Herrin's direction is generally strong – he draws out some wonderful interplay between Greig and Freeman – their awkward dance, the moments Greig is alone in the final scene particularly stick in the mind. Lee Newby's basically one room set is designed to be cleverly flexible aided by canny use of the revolve.

Overall, this is an enjoyable enough afternoon in the theatre, but I wasn't entertained sufficiently to wholly compensate for the work's shortcomings.

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