Thursday, 5 October 2017

James Graham's Labour of Love romps through 27 years of history with hilarity and insight

This latest play from political playwright of the moment James Graham plots the career of Labour MP David Lyons, played by Martin Freeman.

The play focuses around the history of the Labour party since 1990, when the Lyons character was first elected. He comes in accompanied by corporate lawyer wife Elizabeth (Rachael Stirling).

The whole play is set in the Nottingham constituency office of the Mp, opening as he is about to lose the previously safe seat, in the June election.  
A ruminating Lyons, pictures himself becoming the Michael Portillo or Ed Balls of the election night, declaring that he’d better polish up his passa doble.
Lyons is a Blairite, whilst his agent/constituency manager Jean Whittaker (Tamsin Greig) is old labour. Typical of the discourse is a scene involving Lyons, Whittaker and political wannabe Margot Midler. Lyons declares himself a social democrat, Whittaker a democratic socialist, with a reference to the SNP. This draws the comment from Midler that she would like to be a National Socialist.

The personal and political relationship between Lyons and Whittaker ebbs and flows throughout the play, representing in a way the constant tension between old and new labour. The need to win versus the need to be true to socialistic principles is a constant tension.

Lyons defeat in the last election marks the end of new Labour and the beginning of the Corbyn ascendancy. This though is only nodded at in terms of the Lyons character conceding that the future is Whittaker. Had Corbyn lost the election badly I would wager the conclusion of the play may have been a little different.

This is a most enjoyable play, brilliantly acted by Freeman and Greig. However, it is probably overlong at three hours and maybe plays too much for laughs.

The use of a screen behind the stage to provide a commentary of the  political events over the years  is a good way to bring a background context to the narrative.

The play could have been more satirically cutting, maybe a more serious piece, less of a sitcom in style. A bit of the political gravitas contained in Steve Water's play Limehouse may have made for a more satisfying outcome.

That said, Labour of Love offers an entertaining romp through Labour’s recent history, highlighting party difficulties through the lens of one constituency office. Another excellent offering from Graham who is becoming the political dramatist of the decade.

*Runs at the Noel Coward theatre until 2 December

*published in Morning Star - 17/10/2017 - "No love lost in this old v new labour slug fest"

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