BWW Review: LABOUR OF LOVE, Noel Coward Theatre
With This House enjoying an acclaimed revival last year, and Almeida hit Ink now situated just metres away from new offering Labour of Love on St Martin's Lane, the West End currently belongs to the fantastically prolific playwright James Graham.
It's success well deserved, with all three pieces demonstrating an exceptional ability to mine complex issues and rich history, and emerge with pithy, engaging and entertaining theatre.
As the title suggests, Graham's latest takes us back into the political sphere, examining a quarter-century of the Labour Party via the office of one Nottinghamshire MP, David Lyons, and his ideological tangles with constituency agent Jean.
It's bang up to date, beginning in the aftermath of the 2017 snap election - Graham doing some eleventh-hour rewrites - with David facing the horrifying proposition of losing his historically safe Labour seat, but in the midst of a bruising result for the Tories.
The most recent is the weaker section, understandably lacking the perspective of the rest of the piece, and somewhat breaking the pattern Graham cogently illustrates elsewhere of Labour again and again entering the political wilderness whenever they veer hard left.
But it's also deliciously absurd, and Graham is on hand with a wealth of one-liners. Labour's northern electoral butchering is "like Game of fucking Thrones", per Jean, as David stares down the barrel of becoming this election's Ed Balls-like symbolic loser, dissected on breakfast telly. Does Strictly await, he wonders.
We then spool back to the equally bewildering 2015 election (vacillating voters drily characterised as a "swingers' party"), and eventually all the way to Thatcher's resignation and David's first election in 1990 - into a seat so safe that a "sausage sandwich" could hold it if representing Labour. Ouch.
Some of the traditional binaries have been vastly complicated by Brexit - Leave/Remain overtaking North/South - otherwise this is an astute portrait of a Party doomed to repeat its self-destructive cycles. Jeremy Herrin's production makes superb use of video (from Duncan McLean), not just to cover time jumps, but to show Labour's ongoing existential crisis.
That's played out on a personal level between initially optimistic Blairite David, lifelong Labour member Jean, and openly hostile council leader Len, who threatens deselection if David puts Westminster loyalties before local. A battle for the soul of the Party also develops into a love triangle.
The latter isn't exactly subtle, and tonally the play is Graham at his broadest - from the sitcom humour to emblematic characterisation that can feel, well, laboured. There's rather too much of people telling one another who they are and what they represent, instead of it playing out organically - a drawback of the exposition-heavy, time-hopping structure.
It does make this an accessible production, however, and some of the baggier sections may well tighten up over the run. The wry exchanges and farcical set-pieces would all benefit from swifter pacing.
Nevertheless, Tamsin Greig does a spectacular job considering she inherited the part from Sarah Lancashire just weeks before opening. The accent wanders, otherwise she's completely convincing as the quick-witted Jean - outwardly prickly and judgemental, but whose whole-hearted dedication to both public service and to David emerges in genuinely touching fashion.
Greig constantly finds interesting and surprising line readings, which, combined with her skill as a physical comedian, elevates the creakier gags. She has a great partner in Martin Freeman, who still gives the best reaction face in the business, as well as articulating real passion for centrist pragmatism (sorely needed right now) and giving a memorable dance demo.
The supporting characters are more thinly sketched. Rachael Stirling's Cherie Blair-esque posh metropolitan lawyer is evidently out of place in the shabby constituency office (well evoked by Lee Newby), but she's more running joke than actual person, despite an elegant turn by Stirling.
One of the play's threads is the gradual transformation of this community, from uniting, jobs-rich quarry to temporary data centre and finally hopeless bids for foreign investment. Further development of the young activist-turned-disillusioned councillor Margot (Susan Wokoma) and intractable socialist Len (Dickon Tyrrell) would give that idea more emotional heft, particularly in the current post-Brexit landscape.
As it is, the play tends to function best as a warmly comic two-hander, particularly when focussing in on the details of life in a constituency office - like Jean explaining the appeasing powers of a response written on House of Commons letterhead.
Ideologically, Graham remains even-handed, with the biggest plea reserved for overcoming division - as the bickering central pair eventually does. It's a fuzzy conclusion, reflective perhaps of the ever-unfolding political situation, but with Greig and Freeman delivering it, also decidedly appealing.
Photo credit: Johan Persson