I got up early on my day off, even earlier than I do on a work day, to make sure I got to the day seat queue at the Noel Coward Theatre in plenty of time. A seat in the front row for a tenner is not something to be passed up lightly. Having said that, a theatre bargain is meaningless if you don’t enjoy the play. Luckily I loved it.
James Graham seems to be some kind of super-playwright, churning out great plays at the rate of knots. His plays tend to be political, so I find it impressive that I actually enjoy them. Labour of Love is set in a MP’s office in a working-class area of the Midlands (I can’t bring myself to call it the North) and centres around an MP, David Lyons (Martin Freeman) and his constituency agent Jean Whittaker (Tamsin Grieg) over nearly three decades. We begin close to the present day, just after the most recent election when Corbyn made a better-than-expected showing but David has just lost his seat. The subsequent scenes take us back in time, finally ending up when the new MP arrives in his constituency during the final years of the last Conservative era. After the interval the order is reversed, bringing time forward from the early 90s until we are back in the present day. In between scenes, media clips bring us up to date on what is going on in the Labour party and the wider political world – the ascent of Tony Blair, the death of John Smith, multiple elections – to place everything in context.
Jeremy Herrin’s production is a joy to observe: the entire play is set in the same office, but subtle details and decorations help to fix it in time in every scene. There was a knowing laugh from the audience when David turned on the TV to check the election results on Teletext.
From a purely political point of view I found the play fascinating. I was alive during the entire time period this play covers, but at the time much of it went over the head of my younger apolitical self. Obviously a play is no substitute for historical research, but I feel my knowledge of the period has increased.
Graham is able to capture what is still a common point of contention within Labour: the conflict between more centrist pragmatism, keen to compromise to get into power, and the harder left, more principled but perhaps more difficult to appeal to the electorate. Largely this is shown by the conflict between the play’s principal characters: David, who grew up in the area but went away to Oxford, and Jean, the down-to-earth wife of the area’s former MP. David initially becomes an MP with the intention of using it as a stepping stone to bigger things, encouraged by his wife, who looks like she would be happier with the Tories. Jean cares deeply for the community – she is a resolute part of it – and initially sees David as something of an outsider.
Neither character is a caricature, however: they are both incredibly complex, and the heart of the play is their relationship and how it develops over time. Freeman and Grieg are both superb, supported by a strong cast including Rachael Stirling as David’s wife and Dickon Tyrrell as the old-school Labour head of the council. On a human level, it’s utterly engrossing.
What the play ultimately left me with was hope: hope for people, hope for politics. It’s honestly one of the best things I’ve seen this year.