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.