Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Theatre Review: Barnum

I’ve always had a soft spot for the musical Barnum. I discovered it during my weird Michael Crawford obsessed phase in my early teens (you mean you didn’t have one?) when I acquired his - excellent - version on DVD.

I’ve always been slightly wary of seeing the show live, though, feeling slightly that I’ve already seen the ‘definitive’ version, to the extent that such a thing ever exists. When the dinky and fantastically concrete Menier Chocolate Factory announced it as its winter musical I was suitably intrigued to abandon this policy. I mean, how do you fit this ridiculous show and its huge score into what is essentially a very well appointed double garage?

With considerable aplomb, it turns out. Going slightly - gently - down the immersive route, this little joy of a production works wonders. I was (with one qualification) a huge fan.

Musically, Barnum is such an underrated show. Yes, the plot is a bit thin and overlooks, like, a lot about its main character but the songs and the score are cracking. It irks me that it’s not seen as more of a classic when its tracklist contains such beauties as Come Follow the Band, The Colours of My Life, There’s a Sucker Born Every Minute and Join the Circus. If I ever somehow end up on Strictly - when the world finally runs out of celebrities, shortly before the apocalypse - I’d want to charleston to Thank God I’m Old, preferably with AJ as my pro for irony’s sake (high five to the Strictly fans who got that joke). The score sounds stunning in this production too. The orchestration is completely fab and the band really knock it out of the park.

I was slightly concerned that this show being revived now, when the most dangerous proponent of humbug and flimflam the world has ever known is currently sat in the White House watching Fox News, would lead its creative team to try and make it a political satire of some kind. It’s ripe for it in many ways: you have the debate about truth v fakery embodied in its central characters and a large part of the second act is concerned with Barnum running for office. But, mercifully, this isn’t what we get here. Instead, it’s the joy and optimism and energy in the show that’s played up. And it’s infectious and wonderful and like a hug in show form. I defy you not to smile whilst watching this production. It’s exactly what the world needs right now: unashamed fun.

One of the chief joys comes from the production, which works an appropriate amount of magic in the tiny space. I always feel there’s something slightly edgy and unsettling about the Menier - possibly because it is, essentially, a small concrete box - but here, strung with fairy lights and full of performers, it feels exactly the right amount of ‘cheap but fun’. It feels like somewhere PT Barnum belongs. A couple of sightline issues aside (the production is slightly hamstrung by the space’s reliance on supporting pillars) the design and the lighting are amazing. Not as amazing as the movement and choreography though which is spectacular, even more so for the intimacy of the space and resulting closeness between performers and audience. The use of pleasingly low tech visual effects (the elephant is great) and seriously amazing circus skills adds another layer too.

In fact the only thing this production gets wrong is its central piece of casting. I was in no way convinced comedian Marcus Brigstocke was right for Barnum when his casting was announced and, having scene the production, I’m still not. I feel a bit sorry for him really. It’s such a difficult part and he’s clearly miscast but he tries so, so hard to make it work anyway. And I think he does, at times. Specifically, I think he completely carries the sunny optimism, charm and naivety of Barnum when he’s acting. His characterisation is really strong. His comic timing, as you would expect, is perfect. His accent is great and he ad libs fantastically. The issues come when he has to do more than act. He lacks the physical dynamism to fully embody the role and he visibly struggles with the show’s infamous tightrope walk (when I saw the show he made it across at second attempt, straining every sinew to stay on that rope in a way which was incredibly admirable, and my god I’ve never been that tense in a theatre ever in my life). I get that this scene is incredibly difficult - singing, acting and walking a fucking literal tightrope at the same time must be impossible to 99.99% of the population - but if you’re going to be Barnum you have to be able to do it. More problematic is his singing voice, which is weak both technically and in terms of power. He is by far the weakest singer in the cast, an obvious and persistent issue given he’s also the lead. No amount of effort and good intentions can alter that. God knows if it could then Brigstocke would be perfect for the role.

There is better news elsewhere. Laura Pitt-Pulford is spot on, and crystal voiced, as Barnum’s wife, Charity. It’s a joy to see her in such an intimate space. Harry Francis delivers a real show stealer as Tom Thumb and is generally pretty much the dictionary definition of a triple threat.

The real star in this show, though, isn’t an individual. It’s the tireless, versatile and joyful ensemble. Every time they appear en masse something astonishing happens - there’s such talent on display here. Whether it’s tap dancing, circus skills, card tricks, fire breathing or using various members of the cast as human skipping ropes (I assume that has a proper name but I don’t know what it is) everything is executed perfectly, with frankly tiring-to-watch amounts of energy and huge smiles. I loved these guys. If there was an award for best ensemble (and there fucking should be) they would take it hands down.

I really enjoyed Barnum. It’s pure entertainment, fun and spectacle at its best. That slap on the wrist for the casting director notwithstanding, you will leave the theatre with a stupid smile on your face and at least one song spinning round your head. It’s a joyful show and I for one feel like we need more joy in the world right now.

Barnum is at the Menier Chocolate Factory until March 3rd.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Theatre Review: The Complete Greek Tragedies (in one hour)

I’m doing that thing where I review a show you can longer see again. Soz.

For the second Wednesday night in a row, I found myself in a pub theatre. This time it was the rather excellent Rosemary Branch in Hackney - or Islington, or possibly both, I’m not sure - to check out Catharsis Theatre Company’s The Complete Greek Tragedies (in one hour). The title is literal: 31 big, complex stories in (just over) an hour.

Pub theatres are dead glamorous

It’s not difficult to predict the general approach that a production like this will take. There are enough ‘xxx in an hour’ type shows around now to know with some certainty that you’re going to see a madcap comedy of some description. And this is what is presented here. But Catharsis are cleverer than that. They set their production up as almost a play within a play - the setup (and it’s set up well, down to some joyously silly fake programmes) being that you’re going to a 31 hour production of all the tragedies but that one actor, despairing at having been in this same awful production for five years, appeals to the gods for help and is answered by Dionysus, god of drama etc, who duly obliges in forcing them to condense it down to an hour. Thus the idea is that the actors are all improvising and chucking stupid ideas into the mix with no preparation and no alternative but to give them a go. It allows the real life actors more freedom and allows the production to go in more and more ridiculous directions. And of course it’s just very funny.

The production is fantastically unafraid to mock the many and varied pretensions associated with theatre. (It was, for me, the perfect thing to watch after Network. Perhaps Ivo van Hove and team should try and catch Catharsis when they’re next in town.) It tackles this from all angles; traditional theatricality, the idea of ‘accessibility’ and drama school nonsense (“I can’t die, I’ve got an MA in physical theatre”) all have their bubbles thoroughly burst. It uses a lot of parody sequences all of which are fun and some of which are glorious: Medea in Chelsea is perfect but for the nagging suspicion that somewhere an TV executive is lining it up to sit in a double bill with Bromans on ITV2, and there are great takes on The Handmaid’s Tale and The Cellblock Tango off of Chicago. The clever writing is backed up with a clever design. The lighting and sound are really effective and the use of (very) minimal props and costumes fits perfectly with the setup of the production as the most amateur of amateur.

A brave and ballsy cast of three carry the whole thing off really well. Sophie Taylor is the perfect amount of earnest as classicist Cassie, managing to be both unbearable yet still somehow sympathetic (and very funny). Christina Holmbeck as the naive and totally inexperienced Marianna gives the show a bit of humanity and is a stonking Medea (and is also very funny). Iain Gibbons’ Jake is the most broadly comic character and he is, guess what, very funny. His increasingly desperate and ridiculous attempts at ‘accessibility’ are depressingly plausible. And he too is somehow still sympathetic. All together they make for a really effective trio.

The Complete Greek Tragedies (in one hour) is a cracking little show: so fun, so entertaining and so refreshing to see theatre being treated with the irreverence it deserves by some people who clearly completely fucking love it. You can’t see this show anywhere at the moment, but watch out for the next time it’s in town. It’s worth your time.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Theatre Review: Network

When I was doing my mock GCSEs about a billion years ago, I got 96% in the chemistry paper (stick with me, I promise this is going somewhere). Seeing my smug smile, my teacher, the fabulously named Mr Mann, decided to burst my bubble with a pithy “no one likes a smart arse, Williams”.

(Mr Mann was actually a great teacher by the way. He was a serving Territorial Army officer of German descent, with the most incredibly mangled accent, whose teaching methods regularly included armwrestling, wandering around the room picking up stuff off students’ desks with tongs and setting things on fire without warning whenever the mood took him. We had a long running argument about whether manatees were just fat dolphins. But I digress.)

I recall this anecdote now because ‘no one likes a smart arse’ seems a perfect summation of my feelings about Network, the NT’s new Ivo van Hove directed adaptation of the film of the same name. It is such a smart arse of a production; clever, yes, but so fucking self satisfied about it.

Let’s tackle this one head on. I’ve decided I’m done with Ivo van Hove. After his blisteringly good View from the Bridge a few years ago, each subsequent production of his I’ve seen I’ve liked less and I know exactly why. See, van Hove is a director who treads a very fine line between stylish substance and style over substance. View from the Bridge worked because it was firmly the former: it was visually striking and extremely stylized but stripped back in a way that allowed the acting and the text to shine through. Network is firmly the latter: there is so much going on and so little of it for any non-aesthetic reason. It adds nothing to the onstage action, often actively taking away from it. It makes for a deeply frustrating evening. At worst, it’s just pretentious.

My major bugbear is the constant use and boring over reliance on video in the production. This is a play based on a film starring one of the most famous screen actors of his generation. If I wanted to watch it or him on a screen I would have stayed at home. I can’t work out what the video is supposed to add when it's used with the regularity it is here. Some of the visual effects it generates are undoubtedly stunning and it is occasionally used to zoom in on the face of a character not in the main action which allows for an interesting reaction shot but beyond that? If it was used sparingly it would probably be quite effective but it's not. It's used all the time. You almost forget you're actually watching a play at times.

There are other things that irritate me because they're unnecessary too. The onstage restaurant adds literally nothing to the action other than providing some free extras in the restaurant and bar-set scenes (and presumably a bit of extra cash for the NT coffers). The tiny bit of thrust stage is used so literally it's like being punched in the face. The presence of a live band is at best no more effective than a recording and at worst actively distracting. The attempts at audience engagement are so wooden they become painful.

With so much of this stuff you get the feeling that it's included for one reason: because Ivo van Hove thought it was clever. And that's not enough for me. Fairly or not, I left the theatre actually quite angry at having spent two hours (which is too long) indulging him.

I also felt quite angry on behalf of other elements of the production. Because there are some really good things happening here if you can look past all the fluff. The 'I'm mad as hell' scene is actually really well done and gave me goosebumps. The scenes that are fluffless, such as the subplot about two of the TV execs having an affair, are good too. The writing is punchy, topical and quick, if a bit preachy, though the same issues are covered infinitely better by James Graham in both Ink and Quiz. There is no denying that the production looks stunning, especially the polished copper reflective floor which allows for some amazing visuals and fascinating perspectives on the action.  And ultimately, for all my moaning, there is also no denying that the technical virtuosity involved in making this production work in even the most basic sense is phenomenal. If you're interested in how theatre is physically made, it's a fascinating production to watch.

There is some great acting going on amidst the screens too. Bryan Cranston in particular is fantastic; a piece of completely perfect casting if ever there was one. He is totally compelling as Howard, mixing the required blend of cynicism, anger, emotional depth and straight forward charisma to make this character both utterly credible and utterly sympathetic. I wish I’d been allowed to spend more time watching him just on a stage though rather than on a screen. There’s strong support across a necessarily huge cast. I particularly rated Douglas Henshall as Howard's mess of a friend Max. He brings some much needed heart and pathos to proceedings and is fantastic in the production’s rare quiet moments. Tunji Kassim is a revelation (to me) as the Machiavellian network boss Frank Hackett, exploding with rage and machismo. I couldn’t stop watching him whenever he was on the stage and his interplay with both Cranston and Henshall was really exciting to watch.

I am genuinely interested to see what audiences (not professional critics, who I’m 99% sure will obsess over this one) make of Network. I think it will be a pretty Marmite production that will generate strong feelings on all sides. For me, it’s just frustrating. There’s so much good going on here. I just wish it wasn’t dressed up in so much Ivo van Hove-ness. My fleeting affair with Dutch avant garde is, I fear, over.

Network is in the Lyttelton theatre at the NT until 24th March. The entire run is sold out but day tickets, returns and Friday Rush tickets are available.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Theatre Review: Quiz

If you're of a certain age, as I am, the phrase 'is that your final answer?' is one that will immediately transport you backwards in time as quickly as Doc Brown's Delorean: Saturday night, ITV (back in the day where there was only one ITV), Chris Tarrant, Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

We were pretty regular watchers of Millionaire in my family, so it's odd that I don't remember the incident which arguably made it most famous: the appearance of Charles Ingram, the so-called Coughing Major who was alleged to have cheated his way to the top prize. I'm not going to explain the story - that's what Wikipedia is for - except to say that Ingram and his accomplices (his wife and another quiz enthusiast) were all convicted of defrauding the show, a conviction that was subsequently upheld on appeal. But this is not an uncontroversial case and many believe that the convictions are wrong, or at least questionable.

Yep, that is an interactive voting pad.

'Many' including playwright James Graham who takes this episode as the subject for his newest play, Quiz. Regular, or even occasional, readers will know that I love James Graham, like, a lot and a new play of his (of which there are so many at the moment - when do you sleep James?!) is always a cause for celebration and immediate ticket purchasing. And, after the mild disappointment of Labour of Love, it was an utter delight to find that Quiz is classic Graham. I love this play almost as much as Ink and This House, my gold standard.

Graham's writing is, as ever, superb. Although perhaps not as successfully funny as some of his other work, it is endlessly clever and thought provoking. The themes help here. Quiz is, at heart, a consideration of the interplay between entertainment, truth and justice - and honestly could that be more relevant as the world 'celebrates' a year of President Trump? This discussion is taken, expertly, in all sorts of directions, from those you would probably expect to see in a play about this story (what impact did the media attention the case got have on the trial and by extension on justice more widely?) to some that are perhaps more unexpected and bigger (how just is life? why does it matter if you're breaking the rules of the game when the game is rigged against you anyway?) This latter idea is particularly cleverly done through the character of Ingram himself: his perceived poshness allows him to avoid jail but it also means that the public at large, egged on by the media, are anxious to see him fall. Even the Millionaire question setters want him, and people like him, to fail. What impact does this have on the jury in his trial?

One key way in which Quiz feels different to other Graham plays for me is that he has a definite point of view on Ingram's case in a way he doesn't, at least not as overtly, in his other work. Whilst there are still no outright heroes and villains here, it seems fairly obvious where Graham's personal sympathies lie. The structure of the play - act one is, essentially, the case for the prosecution, act two the case for the defence with the audience being asked to vote on Ingram's guilt at the end of each act - reinforces this. If it feels manipulative to present the story in this way that's because it is, but I think deliberately so. It emphasises again the way that different facts can be selected, presented and influenced by context and how they are inevitably misrepresented in the eye of a media storm; in other words it neatly uses structure to reinforce the play's key themes. Ultimately, you can agree with Graham's point of view or not (I don't, as it happens) but that doesn't affect the impact or relevance of the themes of the play.

This production, part of the Chichester Festival and staged in the bijou Minerva theatre, is first rate. Robert Jones’ design in particular is outstanding, using two concentric circles of revolve to house an amazingly well lit generic quiz show set which is suitably flexible to double as a minimal house/courtroom/pub/office etc as the plot demands. It is a perfect use of the space in the Minerva and - should this play transfer to London, which it thoroughly deserves to - will be difficult to replicate as effectively anywhere else. Daniel Evans, Chichester’s Artistic Director, directs brilliantly too. This is a fast paced, knockabout production which makes great, sensitive use of audience participation and is technically extremely complex without ever seeming so. Evans has had an outstanding first season at Chichester. Long may he reign there.

The cast, too, is superb. Quiz, like This House, is a proper ensemble piece with all but the two lead actors (playing the Ingrams) cast in multiple parts. Many multiple parts in most cases - some of the quick changes and logistics involved are staggering! The ensemble are fantastic as a group and as individuals but a few do stand out. As Ingram himself, Gavin Spokes is quietly - and at times devastatingly - brilliant. It’s an onion of part; almost a straightforward, and rather stupid, villain in the first act who reveals real depth, humanity and tragedy in the second. Spokes is particularly good at the latter, you really do just want to give him a huge hug by the end of the evening. Keir Charles, on the other hand, is loudly and exuberantly brilliant as all of the many quiz show hosts who are included in the play. Chris Tarrant is his main role, but he also gets Des O'Connor, Jim Bowen, Leslie Crowther (these three in a single scene, including multiple on stage quick changes which is fantastically entertaining and impressive) and Bruce Forsyth. Although he is a great mimic, that’s not all he is; and he can’t afford to be since he is the one who manages the vast majority of the interaction with the audience which must be a terrifyingly unpredictable prospect for an actor! Sarah Woodward is great too as, amongst other things, the defence QC (the play being presented in part as the Ingrams’ literal trial) who manages to manifest the traditional British view of fairness and justice whilst still being enjoyably sassy and never mawkish.

Quiz is an absolute joy of an evening. It’s a great play but, more than that, it’s great entertainment. And I’ve come to the conclusion that that’s what I love about James Graham: he is a playwright who is not afraid to be entertaining, however serious his ultimate topic. He writes for an audience, not for himself, in a way that few other playwrights do. Long may his profligacy continue.

Quiz is in the Minerva at the Chichester Festival Theatre until 9th December. Tickets are limited so get your skates on.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Theatre Review: The Black Eye Club

As unusual theatre propositions go, a black comedy of manners, set in a domestic violence refuge and staged above a somewhat out of the way pub in Clapham is up there for me. Still since all of the good TV seemed to finish last week I needed something to fill my Wednesday night, and so here we are.

The somewhat out of the way pub in Clapham in question is the Bread and Roses whose upstairs theatre is celebrating its third year with The Black Eye Club, a new play by Phil Charles which recently won the theatre’s playwright award. It tells the story of Dave (gay, shy, repressed, alcoholic accountant with a degree and a savings account) and Zoe (straight, loud, working class with a council house) and their meeting at a refuge whilst fleeing their abusive partners. It’s a great premise and this cracking little play delivers on it with panache.

This is a play that is not afraid to wear its politics on its sleeve and shows the damage that austerity is doing to local government budgets really effectively - an area that for all the political plays around at the moment doesn’t seem to be glamourous enough for most playwrights to explore, despite its very real and sometimes devastating effects on so many aspects of life for so many people. It’s not surprising to read in Charles’ biography that he has direct experience of working with local government and the play is immaculately researched with shocking, though depressingly unsurprising, detail (domestic violence refuges are being outsourced to private security firms like G4S because of course they are).

Both the plot and the characters generally feel very real and very rounded though there are moments, especially with Zoe, that feel a tiny bit lazy and stereotyped; an occasional line of dialogue for her which feels a bit like it was rejected from Eastenders. The plot and the characters’ experiences though ring depressingly true and the points about opportunity and education that Charles uses the contrast between Dave and Zoe to make are done really well. Charles works hard to wring humour from the situation too, and largely succeeds in a wry and knowing sort of way. The biggest feather in the cap of the writing though is the twisty turny last fifteen minutes which are shocking, unpredictable and uplifting and go off in a variety of directions that I really didn’t expect. It’s so rare for a play to have a twist that’s genuinely unforeseen and this one has several. It’s really clever.

Given the constraints of the space and the facilities, the production is strong too. The lighting and incidental music are well used, the set works really well and makes intelligent use of its lack of solid walls and the use of the actual performance space as a whole is effective, using a thrust stage and making sensible use of the main entrance door as an extra bit of set. Tessa Hart’s direction is quick and uncontrived and the choreography is fab, vital to make this story work on a very small stage.

The cast of three are also much to the production’s credit. Christopher Sherwood is my pick of the bunch as the damaged, repressed but ultimately inspiring Dave. His quiet diffidence makes for a very believable and tragic performance. Rebecca Pryle is a hugely sympathetic, likeable and credible Zoe who, when final allowed to do some of the dramatic heavy lifting rather than the knockabout comedy towards the end of the play, really pulls it off. Cathryn Sherman takes what could be a bit of a nothing part, as security guard Sharon, and brings some humanity and edge to it (and I really like Charles’ writing for her and the way he uses her to show that even the people in positions of relative privilege and power in the current local government funding mess are still trapped by it).

Overall, The Black Eye Club is a great little thing; thought provoking, enraging, sad, happy and funny all at the same time. It certainly wouldn’t surprise me to see this piece having a future life in bigger - and more purpose built! - venues. I would certainly be interested to see it in one if it did.

The Black Eye Club is at the Bread and Roses Theatre until 18th November.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Theatre Review: Young Marx

There’s something deeply comforting about the fact that it is now once again possible to go to a theatre on the south side of the Thames that offers £15 tickets and is run by Nicholas Hytner. The rest of the world may be going to shit, but in at least this one tiny respect things are exactly as they should be.

If there’s a pang of sadness that said theatre isn’t the National, it really doesn’t last long once you get inside Hytner’s new venture, The Bridge Theatre. From the beautiful - and functional - front of house, to the completely lovely staff to the huge, well stocked bar to the fact that you can order fresh baked madeleines to eat, warm, in the interval (this is the best idea in the history of theatre), The Bridge is not only a safe space for those who still pine for the Hytner-at-the-National era it’s also just a bloody lovely venue. A gem for London’s theatre scene. 

Once inside the auditorium, which is very similar to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in design with comfy seats, legroom and great sight lines, things - at the moment at least - only get better. Hytner’s first commission for his new baby is Young Marx, a comedy that reunites the team behind the excellent Great Britain, Richard Bean and Clive Coleman, for a romp through the early life of Karl Marx. As a political refugee, Marx lived with his family in digs in Soho for a time pre-Das Kapital and it is this period of boozing, duelling and problematic family life that the play concerns itself with.

It is a great piece of writing, in short. It’s extremely funny in both a knowing chuckle and proper laugh out loud sort of way, drawing its comedy both from politics and, more often, simply from human life. It’s a play that seeks to demystify Marx (and Friedrich Engels) and it does so really well, delivering a very human story of two ordinary men and the competing pressures of their ordinary lives with their extraordinary ideas. It doesn’t set out to be a documentary; though everything that happens in the play is true, some license has been taken with locations and characters to prioritise a coherent and strong narrative. It also delivers some pleasingly darker moments, particularly in the second half, include a genuinely touching funeral scene. The balance between these moments and the comedy is perfectly drawn. It is a rich, fulfilling and entertaining play. Nick Hytner has not lost his eye for a good newbie.

The production is fantastic too. Hytner is in the director’s chair (and I breathe another happy sigh at writing that phrase) and gives us a show that is pacy, energetic and yet feels enjoyably like it’s always slightly verging on chaos. How I’ve missed that man! Mark Thompson’s design is fab; structurally impressive, in that it involves a very large piece of set (a house/shop/British Museum reading room, delete as appropriate) that must turn all the way around on a revolve and open and close to deliver each piece of scenery, and completely visually effective too. The smoking chimneys of the London skyline were almost Disney-esque in their attention to detail. The use - and selection - of music is joyously incongruous to the period and really effective. Composer Grant Olding (of, amongst other things, Jekyll and Hyde ballet fame) has done good here. The production is a gritty, dirty, dangerous treat.

Young Marx reunites Hytner with Rory Kinnear (fun fact: the first show I ever saw at the National was Hytner’s Othello with Kinnear as Iago and I still think about that show sometimes when I’m sad to make me smile) who is, it almost goes without saying, fantastic in the lead role. He does comedy so, so well, particularly the domestic stuff, and his considerable acting chops (sounds dirty, but you know what I mean) shine in the darker moments. He makes Marx a deeply human, deeply sympathetic, figure. He has extremely strong support across the board in an excellent cast, particularly Nancy Carroll as Marx’s wife who is luminously empathetic and Oliver Chris as a charismatic Engels, a perfect companion for Marx who pleasingly complicates the family life vs intellectual life balance that the play explores by being both more pro-family and pro-Marxism than Marx. And look out for Duncan Wisbey’s hilarious ‘Bearded Man in Library’ who almost steals the whole show with his fantastic, David Attenborough voiced, Charles Darwin.

Young Marx is a great production: funny, thoughtful, interesting, beautifully staged and superbly acted. Moreover, The Bridge Theatre is an exciting new venue in London’s theatre scene that I cannot wait to go back to. Go for the plays, stay for the madeleines. 

Young Marx is at The Bridge Theatre until 31st December. 

Theatre Review: Labour of Love

There’s something excellent about St Martin’s Lane at the moment: its two theatres, within yards of each other, are both occupied by James Graham political history plays. I love that fact so much.

At the Trafalgar Square end is my beloved Ink; further up (near the big Pret and the Five Guys because London) is his newbie; Labour of Love. As the name rather suggests this new kid on the block uses the story of one MP, his agent and local party to tell the story of the travails of the Labour Party down the years; its apparently unceasing civil war between people who want to win elections and actually change things and people for whom ideological purity is the sole aim of politics from. Perhaps you can guess from that summation which side of the debate I have greater sympathy with. 

Now, this is a James Graham political play so it almost goes without saying that I enjoyed it and would urge you to see it. Especially as it’s produced by Michael Grandage and there are therefore stacks of £10 tickets available. However, I have to admit I was slightly disappointed by Labour of Love. Judged by Graham’s own standards - which of course include what is for my money the best play about British politics ever written in This House - it’s just a bit thin.

Don’t get me wrong, the writing is still excellent. It is, as Graham always is, pacy and believeable and witty and very, very funny. There are amazing one liners: “we’re up and down like Ken Clarke’s fucking cholesterol”, “it’s Tory party politics, posh squirrels fighting in a bag”, “who knew Jeremy Corbyn was actually Clement Attlee?” And Graham still has the best understanding of British politics of anyone writing on it at the moment, including most of the apparently expert journalists. I found his portrayal of the day to day life on the campaign trail away from Westminster particularly effective in this case. As someone who’s been an election agent for a losing candidate in the past the opening scenes were frankly a bit too real. Structurally it’s clever too, telling half of the story going backwards (from Corbyn to Kinnock) in the first half and the filling in the gaps going forwards (from Kinnock to Corbyn) in the second. Compared to almost any other play around in London at the moment, it’s a fantastic piece of work.

Compared to the Graham back catalogue, though? Not so much. For a start, and I realise approximately 0.01% of you will care about this, there are some uncharacteristic factual errors. For example, theaforementioned opening scenes, where soon to be ex-MP David Lyons and his agent are discussing what went wrong, we’re told that his result is going to a recount. But how, if his agent isn’t there? It would be her who would ask for the recount. This is the sort of thing that Graham always gets 100% right so it’s irritating that it’s wrong here. More fundamentally than my pedantry, unlike Ink or This House, Labour of Love doesn’t feel like it has anything new to add to the debate it takes as its subject. It feels like a summation of everything else that’s written about the Labour Party by every political journalist in Britain, it doesn’t really have a new perspective of its own. The fact that the war between the factions is taking it away from the ordinary members who want to help people, which seems to be its main conclusion, is hardly ground breaking. That’s not to say Graham doesn’t get it when it comes to his topic, he totally does, he just doesn’t have anything to move the debate on from where it already is. 

There is some seriously thin characterisation going on here too. Graham’s plays always tend to have a couple of lead characters who get a bit more of a backstory than everyone else but here that is particularly stark. The supporting characters hardly get a look in and are little more than archetypes - the Old Labour bruiser, the genuine community politician who everyone looks down on. The one I seriously took issue with is David’s wife Elizabeth, a sort of repugnant piss take of Cherie Blair but with the snobbery dial turned up to 1000%, who is an almost pantomime figure. She is the weakest character I’ve seen in a Graham play by some distance. The structure too, for all that I like it, doesn’t quite pay off as it makes the second act almost entirely predictable. 

The production, though, is very strong. As you would hope given it reunites Graham with Headlong, ie the same combination that delivered This House. Jeremy Herrin’s direction is pacy and vibrant as ever. Lee Newby’s set - a series of the same Labour Party office down the decades placed on a double sided revolve for ease of scene changes - is authentic and intelligent; a believable Labour MP’s office. I loved the use of video to help portray the passage of time and the projection of video onto a screen across the stage to mask the scene changes. I don’t usually get too excited about wigs and costumes, but Richard Mawbey’s are excellent here and really effective at displaying the passage of time in a believable way. The use of incidental music is similarly effective, though I missed the traditional James Graham play proper musical number. 

Given my comments about some of the characterisation it’s no surprise that I wasn’t particularly satisfied by some of the acting. That’s not so much to do with the actors themselves though, just the (lack of) material they had to work with. However the two leads, Martin Freeman as David and Tamsin Greig as Jean, could hardly be better. Admittedly David is a very Martin Freeman part (I do wonder if it was written for him), but he is great in it and perfectly embodies the frustrations of a Labour moderate. And he is of course very, very funny. It’s Greig - a late replacement for Sarah Lancashire, who had to withdraw - who steals the show for me though. She’s uproariously funny without ever becoming unbelievable. In the play’s quieter, more emotional moments, she’s beautifully tender. That anyone else was ever considered for this role, let alone cast, is genuinely baffling to me. She’s the best thing about the whole production for me.

To say something is a disappointing James Graham play is rather like saying something is a disappointing Bruce Springsteen album or a disappointing Stephen Sondheim musical: not great by their own standards but still better than almost all of their competition. Labour of Love is, ultimately, a fun, entertaining and well written night out. It may not be the best James Graham play on its street, but it’s still pretty damn good.

Labour of Love is at the Noel Coward until 2nd December.