labour of love.
Labour of Love
Noel Coward Theatre, 25th October 2017
dir. Jeremy Herrin
When 'Labour of Love' was first announced, I was interested. When it was announced that, at the last minute, Tamsin Greig would be stepping in to Sarah Lancashire's shoes, I had to see this play for myself.
All my adult life, I have voted Labour. I joined the Labour party the day after the 2010 General Election, and have remained a member ever since, even joining in on the peripheries of the local party when I've been able to. It's undeniable, though, that Labour has had a thorny past and has trodden a difficult path, especially in the last seven years. The Labour Party though has always been there, in my subconscious. When Tony Blair swept in on a landslide victory in 1997, I remember distinctly, aged eight, how exciting this brave new world was. I was the only student in my class who could name the new Prime Minister when quizzed by our teacher that morning, and it's a moment I've never forgotten. The Labour Party is one I feel passionately about - and whilst this isn't in any way a post about my feelings towards the Party, it is hard to write a review of this magnificent play without at least paying lip service to my political proclivities.
'Labour of Love', then, has been pitched as something of a political romcom: 'Much Ado About Nothing' meets... anything else James Graham has written. It is a passionate examination of party politics; of the divide that so often falls between Parliament and the local party, of the decimation of the Labour strongholds in the North, of the aching chasm between reformers and radicals. The close of the play in particular, an exceptional monologue from Tamsin Greig's Jean Whittaker, encapsulates so much common feeling not just about the Labour Party but of the country as a whole.
Graham's play is oh so cleverly structured, starting in 2017 and tracking back to 1990, then moving back through the same time periods to tie together neatly the questions raised. Archive film footage is also used to hugely powerful effect, marking the shifts in time during the play cutting together real footage of Corbyn, the brothers Miliband, Brown, Blair and John Smith. A revolve is used skilfully to speed the Nottinghamshire constituency office in which the action takes place back and forward in time: posters from various Labour campaigns adorn the walls; iPads are replaced by PCs are replaced by typewriters. They are moments of pure nostalgia.
There are moments, too, of pure slapstick and whilst this is not something of which I am usually fond, here, it works. One particularly hysterical moment comes when MP David Lyons (Freeman) and Jean Whittaker (Greig) are rapidly preparing for the visit of an important businessman, Mr Chen, and Jean's cheap purchases from a budget supermarket chain are confused, ending in hysterical disaster.
On top of this though, is the heart of the thing. Both Freeman and Greig are mesmerising to watch, their sparring like blue touch paper to their chemistry. They are a modern day Benedick and Beatrice, and are beautifully written and performed. Their clear fondness for one another is matched only by the wit and barbs with which they playfully wound one another; their timing flawless. Freeman and Greig create pure magic together every moment they are together on stage.
Greig's Jean is a magnificent character: simultaneously warm and mildly terrifying, working as the perfect foil to Freeman's slick and polished David. Greig's performance also gives way to the intrinsic vulnerability of Jean, and it is this performance that quite literally took my breath away at several moments. Greig's is the stand-out performance: so very skilful, incredibly funny and monumentally heartbreaking in turn.
The supporting cast is strong, too, especially Susan Wokoma who plays a young woman flyering for the Party in 1990, through to a Councillor in her own right in 2017. Whilst Rachael Stirling plays David's wife well, she is perhaps the least well written character, but it doesn't take anything from the sparking wit, deft performances and soaring romantic notes of this beautiful production.