For anyone with even a passing interest in politics, watching the ups and downs of the Labour Party makes an interesting hobby. From the party’s funding in 1918 to today, Labour supporters have ridden a veritable roller coaster of emotions as the party has lurched to the left, hit the centre, virtually torn itself apart, gone to the right and then made a sharp left once more. However, Labour does seem to have two basic types of members. The proud uncompromising working classes who would like a just reward for their work and the university educated metropolitan elite who view socialism from a more esoteric viewpoint. The relationship between these two wings of the party is at the centre of James Graham’s new play Labour of Love having its premiere at the Noel Coward Theatre.
All political careers end in failure and MP David Lyons (Martin Freeman) knows this to be true as he sits with his political agent Jean (Tamsin Greig) waiting for the result of the 2017 election to be announced. David is expecting the unthinkable, after 27 years, he is about to lose his seat and for the first time in history, this tough, northern working class constituency is about to go Conservative. As David and Jean get ready to head off to the count, an unexpected visitor, in the shape of David’s estranged wife Elizabeth (Rachael Stirling) comes in. Dressed in this year’s designer collection, and with an accent that could cut glass, Elizabeth couldn’t be more out of place in the run down constituency office if she tried and it is obvious from the start that she and Jean do not get on. But Elizabeth cares little for Jean and even less for the constituency. She is a woman on a mission and nothing will stop her in her tracks. But before we find out if Elizabeth gets her man, the action shifts backwards retracing David’s career via the coalition, the expenses scandal, the Iraq war, the election of Tony Blair as leader – much to the disgust of local council leader Len (Dickon Tyrrell) – and right back to 1990 with its two major political events, the resignation of Margaret Thatcher and the parachuting in of Oxford-educated, centre left moderate politician David Lyons as parliamentary candidate. The national events are mirrored by the changes in the constituency and as we go back, we see David, and Deputy leader of the council Margot (Susan Wokoma) virtually begging Chinese businessman Mr Shen (Kwong Loke) to build a factory on the site of the former government call centre, itself on the site of a former quarry that once was the main employer of the town.
I love politics so Labour of Love was onto a winner with me from the start. Of all the political parties in the UK, the Labour Party has the most checkered history – and there are some fascinating details in the programme – as it keeps up a constant battle between the social democrats and democratic socialist wings. James Graham has perfectly compacted this fight from the national to the local level in the relationship between Jean, David and Len. So, the politics is first-rate and when coupled with an almost ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ subplot it works really well. The only issue is that, at times, some of the jokes are a little bit too obvious, with punchlines visible from outer space and elicit a groan rather than a chuckle. Having said that though, the story itself is quite fascinating and the divides between centre left and ultra left are nicely played out.
Before moving to the acting, a quick word about the staging. Lee Newby’s revolving set is a brilliant device that moves the office through the various years seamlessly, to the accompaniment of video playback of the period being covered in a way that really gets the political nostalgia juices flowing. In fact, Jeremy Herrin’s production really flows smoothly and the quick changes – clothes and hair – into decade appropriate attire really evoke the period being displayed.
Acting-wise and without a doubt, Tamsin Grieg and Martin Freeman are a perfect double act in the roles of Jean and David. They both bring their individual character to life and when the two characters are together there is a definite spark in the air. Tamsin particular was superb. In a former life, I was a senior officer at a town council and used to deal with the local MP’s political agent all the time and trust me when I say Tamsin’s Jean is completely accurate. Martin turns David from shy, wife dominated, slightly out of his depth naive politician to fully fledged constituency MP with skill and grace. Whilst David never loses his Kinnockite/Blairite beliefs he comes to understand the constituency and appreciate the views of his more hardcore left-wing constituents. Martin keeps David real and displays a nice talent in the twinkling feet department – a future Strictly contestant perhaps?
Overall, Labour of Love is a wonderful example of how a play about politics can not only be educational but also entertaining as well. The play is nearly three hours long but doesn’t ever really seem to sag and apart from some of the dodgy jokes, I found the whole story really engrossing. The writing’s on the mark date-wise – there is even a clip from Jeremy Corbyn’s 2017 conference speech – and I have the feeling this is a play that won’t really date as the various factions continue their infighting for the soul of the party. A really enjoyable evening.
Review by Terry Eastham
Labour MP David Lyons cares about modernisation and “electability”… His constituency agent, Jean Whittaker cares about principles and her community. Set away from the Westminster bubble in the party’s traditional northern heartlands, this is a clash of philosophy, culture and class against the backdrop of the Labour Party over 25 years, as it moves from Kinnock through Blair into Corbyn… and beyond?
Labour of Love
Noel Coward Theatre
St Martin’s Lane, London WC2H 9L