One of the few compensations for the permanent political shitstorm we seem to now live in is the rise of playwright James Graham, whose witty, agile dramas about the way our country is run have unexpectedly proven to be box office gold.
‘This House’, his thriller about the minority Labour government of the 1970s, is one of the great plays of our time, while ‘Ink’, his sinuous drama about Rupert Murdoch’s sulphurous rise, is currently packing ‘em in at the Duke of York’s Theatre. Literally next door is latest effort ‘Labour of Love’, one of only a handful of new plays to open cold into the West End in the last two decades. And, of course, it’s great.
It’s a comedy about an MP, David Lyons, and his struggles to do the right thing as he returns to the East Midlands of his childhood to represent an unglamorous constituency in which he’s never quite made welcome by a local party that mistrusts his cosy relationship with one Tony Blair.
Though naturally heavily rooted in historical fact – the bittersweet bookending sections set in 2017 were tweaked after Theresa May’s ill-advised snap election – ‘Labour of Love’ features an entirely fictional set of characters, which very much allows Graham to get in touch with his inner Richard Curtis. Tracing the relationship between the slick but passionate Lyon, his high-flying lawyer wife Elizabeth (Rachel Stirling) and his bolshy, blunt constituency agent Jean (Tamsin Greig) over the decades, Graham is not shy about popping open the endorphins (a cheeky snatch of ‘Seven Nation Army’ ought to have Corbynites onside from the first second).
Graham and director Jeremy Herrin don’t quite turn up the feelgood factor all the way to ‘1997 landslide’. But ‘Labour of Love’ is basically a romcom. It’s a little cheesier than ‘This House’ and ‘Ink’, but it should be able to reach out beyond its base – there is no reason that I can see why a tourist unfamiliar with the Labour Party wouldn’t enjoy its mix of relationship drama and tart one-liners.
But it is a play about the Labour Party. It’s a celebration of its underdog fortitude: in the plot’s boomeranging journey from 2017 to 1990 and back again, only one of the five time periods visited actually features Labour in power. And it’s a rousing, passionate defence of the centre-ground and of the merits of reaching out to political opponents. In a climate in which talk of deselections, melts and whatever the fuck a centrist dad is run rife, ‘Labour of Love’ is a big-hearted plea to remember what a progressive party can achieve when united – a point neatly underscored in Jeremy Herrin’s production by splicing footage of Corbyn and Blair making almost identical public peace offerings to their opponents.
A huge help are the terrific performances from Freeman and Greig. They’re very different characters – him slick and metrosexual, her bolshy and exaggeratedly folksy, with a running gag about them failing to get each other’s jokes – but they’re united by a heap of personal damage and a deep-seated belief in the party. Greig, in particular, is enormously impressive, nailing her East Mids accent and playing totally against type in a role she only stepped into as a last-minute replacement for Sarah Lancashire.
Above all, it’s a play about love – of party, friends, country – and it’s testament to Labour that despite an impressively long history of self-destruction, you can’t for a second imagine a play like this being written about the other lot. Raise the scarlet standard high!