Jack Thorne's harde-going but important play is a consideration of the future of the Labour Party.
You have to hand it to the Royal Court: it’s hard to imagine a show less Christmassy than Jack Thorne’s drama about local government funding cuts. I suppose, if I was being very tenuous, that I might compare ‘Hope’ to Christmas dinner: a bit dry and heavy going, but probably necessary and if you drink enough it’ll be okay.
On a niftily naturalistic town hall set from Tom Scutt (the parquet flooring is as close as ‘Hope’ comes to special effects), we watch a group of Labour councillors in an unnamed working-class town wring their hands in agony as they’re forced to slash £22 million from their budget.
Paul Higgins’s deputy council leader Mark exemplifies the group: well-meaning to a fault, he agonises over even the smallest cut, and finds it unbearable when he actually upsets people – which inevitably he does, most notably his ex-wife Gina (Christine Entwisle), who leads a highly effective and embarrassing petition against the threatened closure of her daycare centre.
It is a grim play about a grim situation. It’s about Labour councils forced to do terrible things by an ideologically diametrically opposed government that barely has a mandate. And it’s about the changing face of Labour. There is no sense of local or class identity to the group of ethnically diverse, variously accented, earnest people who make up the council. They’re not old Labour or the voice of the working-class, they’re just a bunch of nice people who want to do the right thing, and are struggling to be heard. Tom Georgeson’s slightly incongruous old-timer George sums it up well in the show’s best speech when he says ‘We don’t represent anything any more… we only have to be good to this town.’
‘Hope’ is a well-researched, extremely perceptive play about Labour’s post-power malaise, and a very sympathetic work about the pressures on local government in the age of austerity. But it has to be said that as drama, it’s flat as a pancake. Reuniting Thorne with the normally wonderful director John Tiffany, ‘Hope’ is almost the tonal opposite of their triumphant ‘Let the Right One in’ – crammed with detail but lacking much in the way of drive or excitement.
Mark does have a private life, but it’s cliché-ridden to the point of perfunctoriness – recovering alcoholic single dad with a ‘complicated’ work relationship and improbably precocious teenage son – while everyone else is essentially a cipher.
‘Hope’ is very much worth a look for anyone interested in the future of the British left. But I don’t think it’s being a champagne socialist to think it might still convey its message if it were a little more fun to watch.
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