Labour of Love
Noel Coward Theatre, 15th November 2017
The Tourist is wracked with guilt. A couple of lovely women who were sat next to him asked his opinion at the interval as to whether James Graham’s Ink or Labour of Love was the better play. He said Ink. By the time this was finished he had changed his mind. Ink is a fabulous play (Ink at the Almeida Theatre review *****), don’t get me wrong, with superb performances and a delightful set, but Labour of Love is funnier, and, in its own way, quite moving. There are one or two occasions where Mr Graham’s script goes for the easy laugh, or is slightly too blunt in terms of characterisation, but as in his other plays, all is forgiven because of the sheer level of entertainment which is delivered.
Two plays in the West End, Quiz playing in Chichester (and surely West End bound), This House embarking on a national tour next year, a commission, The Culture: A Farce in Two Acts, for Hull Truck in the pipeline and, I bet, some revivals of his earlier Finborough Theatre plays will pop up. It seems the boy wonder can do no wrong.
That’s because he has the gift. Writing consistently very funny plays, with real dramatic momentum, gentle formal innovation, about relatively recent events, which manage to examine big and important issues, (the way power is wielded in our modern democracy), and which pack in the punters, is not easy. Otherwise everyone would be at it. Yet James Graham makes it look effortless. And he is in the groove. No doubt about that.
Labour of Love charts the course of the Labour Party through the seven General Elections from 1992 through to 2017. The wheeze is that the first half shows events in reverse, the second then rolls forward again. Martin Freeman plays David Lyons, an initially ambitious Blairite, who is tasked in 1990 by Party HQ with fighting a “safe” Labour seat in Nottinghamshire, near where he was brought up. His ambitious lawyer wife Elizabeth, (well played by Rachael Stirling, given the somewhat one-dimensional hand she was dealt), initially intends being his constituency agent but is reluctant. In steps Jean Whittaker (Tamsin Greig) who was married to Terry, the previous MP before he became ill. She knows the ropes and is Nottinghamshire through and through. The MP and his inherited agent then play out, over the years, the struggles between the left and the right of the Labour party, the democratic socialists and the social democrats, against the backdrop of a Northern town that falls further and further behind through the 1990s and 2000s.
The relationship between David and Jean is alternately wittingly combative and awkwardly tender and is, eventually, consummated (don’t worry, not literally). Kwong Loke plays Mr Shen a Chinese industrialist who might prove the town’s employment salvation, Susan Wokoma is Margot Midler ,who is roped in as a local activist, and Dickon Tyrell is Len Prior, council member, old school Labour and, for a time, Jean’s second husband.
You have to feel sorry for Sarah Lancashire who was initially cast as Jean but had to withdraw on doctor’s advice. Her loss however was Tamsin Greig’s gain. And ours. Jean is an absolute peach of a role. And Ms Greig, who might be our greatest current comic stage actress, literally wolfs it up. She is marvellous. As with her Malvolia at the National before this (Twelfth Night at the National Theatre review ****) it is not just that she is a master of timing but that she can connect with the whole audience wherever she is on stage and in whatever she is saying. And, as in Twelfth Night, when the tone shifts so does she. Immediately. And we the audience follow her. Immediately. Martin Freeman is equally at home as David, in particular when he gets to deliver a rousing soliloquy, on the virtue of pragmatic Government rather than the sanctimony of permanent Opposition, which saw the audience break into spontaneous applause.
This is a joint production between Michael Grandage and Jeremy Herrin’s Headlong with the latter in the director’s chair. He may have misfired a little with Common at the National, but he is back on form here having previously brought This House to life. Lee Newby’s set is as workaday as you like and a big call out to wig and hair director Richard Mawbey, who convincingly took the leads backwards and forwards through the three decades. Also vital in plotting the history is the video and projection design of Duncan Maclean and the master sound designer Paul Arditti has some fun with the soundtrack.
Labour of Love. Labour of course, that is the subject. Labour of Love because it is pretty clear where James Graham’s sympathies lie, though he scrupulously avoids the soapbox. Labour of Love as a pun on his writing skill maybe, as this feels like it was anything but a struggle to create. And Labour of Love because David and Jean’s witty sparring has more than an air of Benedick and Beatrice about it. A popular playwright, banging out the texts, selling out the theatres, engaged with the politics of the day, making us laugh, (sometimes with the most obvious of material), and making us think. It worked five hundred years ago. It is working for James Graham now. Maybe this is the lost Love’s Labours Won.