Labour of Love Noel Coward Theatre, London WC2 4/5
THIS latest play from political playwright James Graham plots the career of Labour MP David Lyons.
An entertaining romp through Labour’s recent history, it highlights the party’s difficulties through the lens of one constituency office in Nottingham where Lyons (Martin Freeman), supported by his corporate lawyer wife Elizabeth (Rachael Stirling), has been in office since 1990.
Set throughout in the office, it opens as he is about to lose the previously safe seat in last June’s election. A ruminating Lyons pictures himself becoming the Michael Portillo or Ed Balls of election night and declares that he’d better polish up his paso doble.
Lyons is a Blairite, while his agent and constituency manager Jean Whittaker (Tamsin Greig) is “old” labour. Typical of the ongoing barbed discourse is the scene where Lyons come out as a social democrat to the self-professed “democratic socialist” Whittaker and political wannabe Margot Midler (Susan Wokoma). The latter, in response to an SNP reference, declares that she would like to be a “national socialist.”
The personal and political relationship which ebbs and flows between Lyons and Whittaker typifies the constant tension between Labour “new” and “old” — the desire to win at all costs versus the need to be true to socialist principles.
And Lyons’s election defeat could be seen as marking the end of new Labour and the beginning of the Corbyn ascendancy — though this is only nodded at as the MP concedes that the future is Whittaker. Had Corbyn lost the election badly, the play’s conclusion may have been a little different.
Directed by Jeremy Herrin, this is a most enjoyable play. It’s brilliantly acted by Freeman and Greig, and the use of a screen at the rear of the stage providing a commentary on political events over the years provides a good background context to the narrative.
But at three hours it’s overlong and, sitcom-like, maybe plays too hard for laughs — the satirical edge is not as sharp as it might be. Another entertaining political drama from Graham, though to date he lacks the cutting edge of a David Hare.