Labour of Love
We’re in a Nottinghamshire constituency which has always been Labour. It’s 2017 and sitting MP David Lyons (Liam Stewart) is close to losing his seat. James Graham’s play then takes us back to the late 1980s in a detailed, compelling, often ruefully witty exploration of the tensions between the traditional Labour position and pragmatic New Labour.
Stewart gives us a man who is now shouty and probably burned out, struggling to come to terms with the imminent end of his career. Then we shift back in time and see him with his rather “posh”, distant, lawyer wife (Sophie Platts-Martin – good) who can’t envisage living in the constituency, trying to form a working relationship with the local council and making a laughable mess of a trade negotiation with a Chinese businessman (James Taverner – convincingly cold).
Most important of all is his relationship with his feisty, forthright, very bright agent, Jean (Helen McGill). McGill’s is a remarkable performance. She develops her character from a troubled young mother, whose husband has had to resign as MP because he’s dying of cancer, through several decades to a mature woman who knows the business she’s in and the man she’s working for very well indeed. And she does it in reverse. We get the mature version first and then with the aid of a wig, some younger clothes and some fine acting she sheds 30 years and carries us with her completely.
At the heart of this very political play is a love story. The relationship between David and Jean is stormy, argumentative, often angry but always passionate. As with Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing the more they hurl insults at each other the more we know that there’s chemistry there. It’s beautifully written and in this production exceptionally well acted and intelligently directed.
Phillip Ley’s set supports all this with basic office furniture, an “outside” door to the constituency office and a tiny kitchen off it. He has done some very accurate research and prop finding to get exactly the right sort of technology – phones, TV, fax and so on – for the year in question.
The above-set, video projection (designed by Harry Tomlin) is good too. He gives us archive footage of various prime ministers and leaders of the opposition over the last thirty years (how young everyone looks!) interspersed with film of Stewart and McGill canvassing and making constituency visits. It’s intended to cover the scene changes while cast and crew carry things on and off and it works pretty well although some of the cueing was iffy at the performance I saw.
First published by Sardines https://www.sardinesmagazine.co.uk/review/labour-of-love/