Tag Archives: Martin Freeman

Finding Harold: A Pinter at the Pinter Season Review

Pinter at the Pinter Season

Six months ago, the thought of a season dedicated to Pinter, let’s face it, sounded like a drag, a potential slog through 20 one-act plays and sketches full of weird scenarios, aggressive encounters and endless pauses. But as lovers of drama “this will be good for me” you may have thought, Pinter is beloved of actors and directors, an important voice in the landscape who like Brecht and Beckett we have to learn to appreciate – the equivalent of our theatrical fibre, you know it’s good for you but you don’t have to like it.

What has actually occurred in the last six months is nothing less than astonishing as Jamie Lloyd’s Pinter at the Pinter season has transformed hearts and minds, showing us the genius and humanity of a multi-stranded writer whose plays remain as relevant and meaningful as they were in the 1960s. By finally letting the audience in on the secrets of Pinter’s success and making a case for his work in the mainstream, this is how Jamie Lloyd et al has taught us not just to like and understand Pinter, but to love him.

  • The Context

Prior to this game-changing season, there has been plenty of Pinter to see in the last few years with high calibre productions filled with star names. Lloyd himself directed two at the Trafalgar Studios – The Hothouse and The Homecoming with a fantastic cast that included Pinter-veteran John Simm in both alongside Ron Cook, Gary Kemp, Simon Russell Beale and Gemma Chan. A major revival of No Man’s Land toured the UK with legendary theatre knights Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, while 2018 began with an impressive production of The Birthday Party also at the Harold Pinter Theatre directed by Ian Rickson and starring Toby Jones, Zoe Wannamaker and Stephen Mangan.

All of these productions were great, all weird, menacing, peculiar experiences that were entertainingly bizarre. They created a chink through which you could sit back and appreciate Pinter’s (then) niche appeal, his focus on unsettling tone and illusory perspectives rather than straightforward narrative and character development. Did we understand these plays? Maybe. Did we love them? Probably not. Using the same criteria for assessing last year’s disappointing Oscar Wilde season, let’s see how Jamie Lloyd changed our minds.

  • Play Selection is Crucial

Building an entire season around rarely seen short works and grouping them together in thematic collections was a stroke of genius. The advantage of this for an audience is the feeling of assortment, knowing that if one piece was less entertaining or meaningful then in 10-30 minutes the next play or sketch might be more appealing. The anthology approach offers plenty of variety in one night, making explicit connections between quite different types of work and  thereby reinforcing the central premise that our perspective on Pinter’s output has been unfairly narrowed by his most revived plays.

Pinter is, Lloyd has forcefully argued, an ever-relevant commentator whose writing incorporates the full spectrum of human experience, that it has a universality that beneath the strange structure and scenarios makes him a major and enduring figure in theatre history. And the timelessness of Pinter’s subject matter was infused through the seven thematic collections, beginning with a set of stories including Mountain Language, One for the Road and Ashes to Ashes that examined the totalitarian state, the shifting balance of power in society and the slow erosion of individual rights that leads to violence.

Playing in repertory, Lloyd changed pitch completely in Pinter Two with the oft-combined The Lover and The Collection that examined the politics of relationships, of fantasy role-play and unconventionality. Pinter Three and Four also applied contrasting themes, the latter using Moonlight and Night School to think about external intrusion into the domestic sphere and the complexities of family life, while placing these alongside exquisite productions looking at love and absence – Landscape and A Kind of Alaska – making us see Pinter’s ability to write deep emotion for the first time. Pinter Three was a powerful experience amplified by Lee Evans heartbreaking Monologue which remains one of the seasons most memorable events, one that felt utterly transformative in shifting our perspective on Pinter.

The fifth collection continued to focus on isolation and physical separation finding poignancy beneath the comic in Victoria Station and particularly Family Voices, an exchange of letters between mother and son. This was contrasted with the class-based falsity of pre-selected communities in Pinter Six’s Party Time and Celebration, before concluding with A Slight Ache and The Dumb Waiter showcasing the absurdity of language and the rhythm of Pinter’s dialogue. The breadth of Pinter’s work has been gratifying to see, evolving throughout the season and carefully curated to reveal a writer whose multifaceted output elicited deeper meaning the more of it we saw.

  • Vary the Presentation

It has been said many times during the series, but Jamie Lloyd has the most finely calibrated understanding of Pinter of any modern director and this gave his team the confidence to break free of the original period settings and to deliver each anthology with a slightly different, but undeniably modern, approach that underscored the generality of Pinter’s themes. Where Dominic Dromgoole’s Wilde season stuck to its rigid historical focus (much to its detriment), Lloyd and season designer Soutra Gilmour had a clear, stylised vision for each production, united by a series of common factors including the large rotating cube in various states of deconstruction, and the visible “backstage” detritus that lent artificiality at the right moments.

The effect created layers of meaning within the design that united individual collections under their thematic banner whilst also ensuring that they were visibly part of the overall vision for the season. Through careful management of visual clues, Jon Clark’s lighting design and George Dennis’s sound and music choices, every time the curtain went up the audience undoubtedly knew they were at a Pinter at the Pinter performance.

It all began with a clear statement of intent, the lurking fear and intensity of Pinter One became a core feature of the stark, grey and intimidating design, with plenty of shadows creating dark corners. This is not the way Pinter’s work had been visualised before, and it set the standard for no ordinary season to come. And so it proved to be, every production offered a different approach, from the heightened reality and colour saturation of 60s sex comedy The Lover right through to the creepy radio booth of a A Slight Ache, each design slightly separate from those that had come before while beautifully serving the themes and content of the work.

The most visually exciting and directorially daring, was Pinter Six in which Lloyd employed very little movement and instead organised his actors in a line during Party Time, each stepping forward to deliver their scenes. The purposefully static nature of these decisions showed a season full of confidence, revelling in an intensity amplified by Gilmour’s monochrome design. As a now dedicated Pinter audience, we were pushed to focus on the text more completely as the season unfolded, a decision that allowed us to get the most from radio play A Slight Ache and Betrayal which followed.

  • Venue and Casting

Holding a Harold Pinter season at the Harold Pinter Theatre is an obvious choice, but the auditorium itself, aside from a series of slim pillars on every level, offers reasonable views from all but the most extreme seats in the Royal Circle and Balcony. Wherever you sit, the audience can feel fairly close to the action and if you booked early enough, you could see the whole season for £15 per show with several marginally restricted view seats in the Dress Circle – a sensible pricing decision for what 8-months ago seemed like an enormous risk. While Betrayal prices are now notably higher, previous season attendees had access to pre-sale tickets for as little as £25, while a weekly Rush scheme was introduced for key workers and those in receipt of social security benefit to see the show for £15, all of which have resulted in what has felt like a relatively diverse audience across the entire run.

Casting, of course, has been one of Pinter at the Pinter’s most notable features and, like the Kenneth Branagh Season in 2016, there has been a clear strategy to align established theatre veterans, those who personally knew Pinter and, most importantly, the industry’s rising stars – reiterating the season’s role in ensuring Pinter’s future survival. Every casting announcement brought fresh excitement with well-known performers including David Suchet, Anthony Sher, Phil Davis, Tamsin Grieg, Celia Imrie and Tracy-Ann Oberman across the run. Rupert Graves was particularly excellent in Pinter Five as a bemused taxi driver before joining with Jane Horrocks for the memorable Family Voices. John Simm excelled as ever in Pinter Six while Janie Dee and Brid Brennan were hilarious as nosey aunts in Night School.

Among the creative team, Lloyd successfully shared the directing honours with Patrick Marber, Lia Williams, and particularly Ed Stamboullian, but it was just as delightful to see substantial roles given to younger actors. Hayley Squires, Papa Essiedu, Gemma Whelan and Kate O’Flynn are well established if arguably not quite household names yet, but each firmly grasped the opportunity that the season offered to deliver excellent performances. And equally we saw brilliant work from actors all but fresh from drama school including Abraham Popoola as waiter with literary pretensions in Celebration, Jessica Barden as the mysterious lodger in Night School, and most impressively from Luke Thallon (soon to be seen alongside Andrew Scott in Present Laughter at the Old Vic) who brought Pinter’s radio play Family Voices so vividly to life in another of those memorable moments that will linger long after the season concludes. Of course, the ever-savvy Lloyd saved his trump cards for the season finale.

  • A Grand Finale

If there has been one key feature of the Pinter at the Pinter season it has been never to do things by halves, so with that in mind, why have one season finale when you can have two! The combined excitement of seeing Martin Freeman and, Pinter collaborator, Danny Dyer on stage in The Dumb Waiter promised to be quite an experience when it was announced last summer when Pinter Seven was intended to conclude the series in February. It may have raised eyebrows at the time, but populist casting would drive new audiences into the theatre. In that time, Dyer has transformed himself into a national treasure, and, with a theatre CV that is predominantly West End or equivalent, it proved to be an insightful evening as the central pair delivered a performance that showcased the layers of comic potential in the text to a house packed full of newly won Pinter fans.

Then came Betrayal. Announced only last November when the season was well underway, Pinter’s beautiful 90-minute play about adultery and friendship became the new season finale. The casting of Tom Hiddleston, Zawe Ashton and Charlie Cox ensured that Pinter at the Pinter would end with one of the year’s most anticipated productions. Fully consistent with the seven insightful anthologies that have come before and visually aligned with the stark simplicity of Pinter One, directed with the precision and choreographical control that Lloyd displayed in Pinter Six, and performed with the intensity and emotional force of Pinter Three, Betrayal is an extraordinary piece of theatre, moving, complex and hugely resonant, the cumulative effect of Pinter’s work over the last 6 months ensuring you’ll never forget this astonishing finale.

  • A Point of View

In just six months, Jamie Lloyd’s creative team and ever-changing company of actors has utterly transformed our perspective on Harold Pinter. Where once we went leaden-footed for a night of inexplicable menace, suddenly we were skipping to our seats eager to be wowed by each new perspective on his plays. The range and value of Pinter’s writing, his inestimable effect on the theatrical landscape and the importance of his commentary feels more relevant, timeless and incontrovertible than it ever has.

The Pinter at the Pinter season set out to change our minds, to make us see, understand and really feel the many kinds of writer Pinter was. Anyone planning a production now will (and should) be intimidated by the wonderful clarity this season has brought us, the creative vision so brilliantly and purposefully delivered by all involved and filled with memorable experiences. We are genuinely sad that it’s over. The season has deservedly received huge acclaim, and plenty of applause, but Jamie Lloyd this figurative ovation is just for you for because in this exceptional season of work, you truly taught us all to love Pinter.

The Pinter at the Pinter Season concludes with Betrayal, now running until 8 June, with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Pinter Seven: A Slight Ache / The Dumb Waiter – Harold Pinter Theatre

Pinter 7 - The Dumb Waiter

What a difference a few months can make; when the Jamie Lloyd Company first announced its Pinter at the Pinter season finale show back in May (before Betrayal was added to the programme), the news that Danny Dyer would star alongside Martin Freeman raised a few eyebrows. Famous for a series of over-earnest gangster films, daft documentaries and his role in Eastenders, his fans were delighted but there was also plenty of sneering about his lack of stage experience, and undoubtedly some ticketholders were hoping to witness a car-crash theatrical event. But since May, Dyer’s wider public profile has rapidly changed largely due to his “mad riddle” Brexit rant that reflected the frustrations of so many, as well as his recent history series for the BBC that defied its critics with knowingly comic scenarios that were full of humanity and respect for the expertise around him. In the last eight months the nation has rather taken Danny Dyer to our hearts

For fans, the transformation of Danny Dyer began when his Eastenders character Mick Carter proved to be a sensitive and loving family man, subverting old-fashioned expectations of soap-opera masculinity by supporting his fictional son’s decision to come-out, while sensitively responding to his wife Linda’s rape storyline. More recently, Dyer cemented his status as a national treasure in waiting by delivered Channel 4’s alternative Christmas message stressing the importance of mentorship, a sentiment echoed in his quite touching speech at the National Television Awards last month in which he dedicated his win to Harold Pinter for believing in him when no one else did.

Dyer, of course had known Pinter when as younger actor he appeared in No Man’s Land, Celebration and The Homecoming. A guiding friendship developed that has clearly had a lasting effect on the actor, one that makes his presence in the Pinter at the Pinter line-up both appropriate and meaningful – who better to celebrate the writer’s life and work than someone who feels he owes it all to Pinter. Throughout this superb season the Jamie Lloyd Theatre Company has made strong and strategic casting decisions that have purposefully mixed experienced actors, those who knew Pinter or have performed frequently in his plays, along with the industry’s rising stars.

It has given actors and comedians the chance to surprise us – who imagined that Lee Evans would deliver one of the most moving monologues of the season in Pinter Three, or that newcomer Luke Thallon would almost steal the show from established performers Jane Horrocks and Rupert Graves in Pinter Five. There are no passengers in a Jamie Lloyd show, however large the company or small the role, every part of the production must contribute to the overall effect the director is trying to create. Lloyd likes to be disruptive and in cannily casting Dyer, he foresaw a possibility that goes beyond the commercial – though a full house and growing anticipation for a notable finale are also in there – another chance to use his stylised vision to show us that Dyer is as worthy of this company as any of the great names who have come before.

But all of that is to come because Pinter Seven opens with Gemma Wheelan and John Heffernan in A Slight Ache, Pinter’s 1958 play that began its life on the radio. While some of the other pieces in the collection have a similar provenance, they have been staged as primarily theatrical experiences, creating movement while playing with tone and pace to give them a physical dramatic life. Here the growing confidence of the Lloyd season is evident, now six revered shows later, we see the radio play performed by two actors in a 1950s radio studio using, for the most part, just their voices and a microphone to create that intimate wireless feel, and adding their own sound effects as they reveal the curious story of a middle England couple and the mysterious Matchseller.

Set in the semi-rural home of Edward and Flora on Midsummer’s Eve, it opens with the trapping of a wasp in the marmalade as the couple eat breakfast in their garden, revealing their quite different approaches to dealing with the buzzing intruder. As the longest day stretches on their happy idyll is disturbed by the looming appearance of a Matchseller lurking on the perimeter of their property, a man who appears to have watched the house for some time. Wanting him to leave, and with his eyes beginning to ache Edward and Flora invite him in, keen to know more about this troubling stranger.

Like so much of Pinter’s work, A Slight Ache uses language to create a quite specific effect enhanced here by the use of close microphones to create the very intimate feeling of radio drama. Very little is acted out, so almost everything the couple say or do must be conjured in the audiences’ mind from the descriptions and implicit inferences created by the actors. There is a strong sense of place, of class and a particular kind of easy living sustained by wealth, entitlement and expectation that comes entirely from the words Pinter places in the mouths of the characters. Frequent reference to the Latin names of the plants in the garden as Edward and Flora enjoy their home, and words like “marmalade”, “preposterous” and “treacherous” evoke a particular kind of England.

This is reinforced later by discovering Flora was once a Justice of the Peace as an encounter with a poacher sticks in her mind, while Edward has a career as an essay writer, all of which suggest a peaceful and untroubled existence that the Matchseller is about to disrupt. As so often with Pinter, what is said on the surface can be at odds with what is happening underneath, and while both Flora and the Matchseller are the recipients of some fairly ugly words that deliberately mar the beauty of the summer’s day, it is the practicality and openness of the female character that emerges with strength of purpose over her weaker intellectualising husband.

Lloyd’s staging draws out the psychological strangeness of the play, a building sense of doom but also of an almost supernatural presence that will change them all. The paganistic connection to Midsummer’s Eve runs through this one act piece, referenced repeatedly as “the longest day” as though ripe for other worldly forces to take charge. At the same time, we never see or hear the Matchseller speak, any responses attributed to him and voiced by Edward and Flora who also describe his shambling and dirty appearance. Crucially, in Lloyd’s production we never hear him, so, unlike Flora and Edward’s actions, he is not accompanied by any sound effects, questioning whether his existence is quite as firm as Edward’s failing eyes suggest.

There is a notable Inside No 9 quality to this 50-minute duologue, and, with similarities in content and tone, A Slight Ache may well have influenced Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s Tom and Gerry episode from Series 1. It is also beautifully played by Wheelan and Heffernan, creating a richness with their voices so redolent of the undisturbed clarity of radio, while modulating the sound to alter the mood of the piece as the characters are drawn from their well-spoken, almost clipped 1950s accents, into misty reminiscences and increasingly fearful behaviours by the repulsively alluring stranger they have invited in. You may be here for the big stars to come, but this fantastic one-act play is the one you’ll be thinking about on the way home.

The Dumb Waiter is, in part, a more farcical affair but, written in 1957, is equally concerned with the use of language to create a sense of class and purpose. Two hit men wait in the basement of a building in Birmingham for instructions on their latest job, Ben the senior partner just wants to peaceably read his newspaper while the more highly-strung Gus poses an endless torrent of questions. Already a little fractious with each other, the unexpected arrival of food orders in the dumb waiter throws the men into chaos as they try to figure out what is going on before their target arrives.

There is a Godot-like quality to this semi-absurdist play, and while the farcical elements are perhaps less well-formed than some of Pinter’s later work, Lloyd’s production nicely frames the anticipation of the characters, forced to endure a long wait before they can perform their task, as well as the shifting power dynamic between the two men essentially trapped in a confined space. In some ways they seem both capable and entirely incapable of performing the assassins’ role they have chosen, and what emerges is a tug of war between Gus’s intellectual and Ben’s physical approaches.

Pinter often likes to introduce a disruptive element into an established group, but in The Dumb Waiter it is Ben and Gus who are the interlopers. We know from their accents, turn of phrase and the existence of particular items in their possession that they are both working-class men from London. They use words like “liberty” to mean an affront and Ben reads sensationalist stories from the newspaper, while Gus reveals a small picnic in his bag that includes tea, milk, biscuits, crisps and an Eccles cake which, with little biographical detail, still speaks volumes about who they are.

Martin Freeman’s Gus is initially the nervier of the two, he fusses about the broken toilet flush and the state of the beds they’ve been given to sleep in, at times barely pausing for breath. He hounds Ben for details of the job and, despite his supposed experience, seems disconcerted by a previous victim being female. During the course of the play, Freeman slowly suggests a different angle to Gus, with a physical bravery that surpasses Ben’s. He is first to open the serving hatch to the Dumb Waiter and to check the exterior world for contact, becoming increasingly comfortable within himself as the absurdity plays out.

By contrast Dyer’s Ben begins to come unstuck, the control and self-confidence with which he starts the play, silently and calmly reading the paper, is slowly chipped away until his own discombobulation takes on physical characteristics as Dyer sways slightly, shifting his weight or anxiously rubs his knees as Ben tries to figure out how to respond to whatever elaborate game is being played with them. With Dyer’s previous experience playing hard men, he’s on pretty firm ground here but he captures well the loosening of Ben’s certainty without entirely relinquishing the physicality of the potential threat he poses.

It’s a successful treatment from Lloyd in a play that grapples with largely realist performances in an absurdist construct. Part of that is down to the relationship that Freeman and Dyer create throughout the play, both giving the other the space for their individual performances, while allowing the sands to shift as events redefine power structures. With press night looming, these rapid changes between comedy, menace and fear that run through Pinter’s one-act show will become even more fluid and loaded with meaning which should please the house-full of fans for both performers.

Pinter Seven was meant to be the end of the Pinter at the Pinter season, and after six months of performances, these anthology collections have ended as confidently and memorably as they began, particularly with the very fine A Slight Ache to start the evening. The wealth and variety of Pinter’s work has seemed genuinely astounding, while Lloyd’s company of creatives and performers have brought distinction and meaning to every single one, eliciting very high hopes for a creative take on Betrayal in March. As Danny Dyer continues his transformation, whatever the reason for snapping-up tickets eight months ago you can be assured of a good night out. After all, a proudly working-class actor at the centre of a major West End season, well, Harold Pinter would approve.

Pinter 7: A Slight Ache / The Dumb Waiter is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 26 February. Tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

 


Labour of Love – Noel Coward Theatre

Martin Freeman, Tamsin Grieg and James Graham, Labour of Love

More than 90 years since its first ever period in government, the Labour Party has spent the majority of its existence in opposition and riven by immobilising debates about whether it should honour its left-wing roots or move towards a central populist position. Such intricate divisions are not the preserve of Labour of course – The Conservative Party has torn itself to pieces arguing about Europe on many occasions – but within Labour a fascinating clash of fundamental idealism is a constant feature, and one which writer James Graham looks to explore in his insightful new play Labour of Love.

In a reasonably short time, Graham has become one of our leading proponents of political theatre, commenting not just on the Parliamentary system in plays like This House, but also the wider Establishment in his huge 2017 hit Ink about the early days of The Sun, as well as the forthcoming examination of the television media in Quiz. Graham’s work focuses on crucial moments of change and the ripples that these cause decades later. It always starts with an institution holding power in a present-day scenario and attempts to unpick the various strands that brought about this influence, whether it be the ongoing power of tabloid journalism, or in the case of Labour of Love, understanding the anatomy of a major political party whose current resurgence could be about to break a century-old cycle of behaviour.

The play is set in a safe Labour constituency, examining 27 years of party history using a reverse chronology structure in Act One to take MP David Lyons (Martin Freeman) from results night in the 2017 General Election, right back to his very first win in 1990, with pit stops in 2010 and 2003, while Act Two starts in 1990 and takes the audience right back up to date. And while that sounds rather dry, at the play’s heart is the developing relationship between the moderniser Lyons, a protege of the Blair years, and his election agent Jean (Tamsin Greig), wife of the hard-line leftist MP he replaced.

At the start of the play David and Jean have the exasperated affection of years spent sparring with one another, her keeping the show on the road and challenging his abandonment of party tradition, while David has enjoyed the rollercoaster of Westminster while trying to convince his constituents that being electable and being Labour are not mutually exclusive. Why these people have become who they are and the exact status of their combative relationship is slowly revealed as we travel back to their beginning in an attempt to understand what their future will be.

One of the things that distinguishes Graham as a writer is his ability to construct plays that maintain their narrative drive, drawing the audience into the humanity of his characters while still making significant observations about where power lies in our society. But rather than hammering home his message, Graham utilises a light touch approach to the politics, wrapping it in humour and careful character development.

Construction may seem a basic skill for a playwright, but it’s not as straightforward as it sounds, and Graham is a master at controlling an unfolding story and creating interlocking scenarios that work together to form a complete picture. Ink used a series of overlapping scenes, music segments and abstract elements to conjure up the world of 60s journalism, while in Labour of Love, Graham has four semi-independent stopping points, each with their own mini-plot and cliff-hanger, resolved in the second half, so by the end these fleeting visits to each decisive moment in Labour’s recent history have also satisfactorily coloured-in the 27 years of Jean and David’s lives as well.

Normally you need only turn on the news to see the kind of comical and ridiculous behaviour from our politicians you would never believe if it was on stage, but Labour of Love mines a long satirical traditional of holding our leading officers to account. It is a political farce with plenty of humour and packed-full of audience-pleasing and sharply observed references to pop culture that litter the three decades in which the play takes place. Some of the high points include a complaint from Jean that northerners always get the rough end of the deal, ‘it’s like Game of Thrones’ she quips, and waiting for a fax machine to reveal if David has betrayed the local party in the leadership election. The carefully chosen music from D:Ream’s ‘Thing Will Only Get Better’ to Britney Spears ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’ will  also take you right back in an instant to the four eras created on stage.

Supporting this is Lee Newby’s purposefully drab constituency office set which uses the stage revolve to move between decades. It’s soulless and even in 1990 well worn, grey floor tiles and the same drawer that doesn’t open properly for 30 years. But it’s in the tiny details that the changing period comes to life as fax machines give way to computers with email, boxy televisions with actual Teletext (leading to one audience cry of “bring it back”) become flatscreens, and crucially the image of the then Labour leader changes, framed on the office wall with Jeremy Corbyn looking quite regal in his 2017 photograph – an image clearly chosen with particular care to emphasis his role in debate between left and centre that continues to divide his party while whipping up a popular acclaim.

At the centre of all of this is Tamsin Greig playing Jean Whittaker, replacing Sarah Lancashire at relatively short-notice which led to a week of previews being cut. None of the backstage drama is evident though, and Grieg makes it feel like the part was written especially for her. Old Labour to the core, Jean is both a thorn in David’s side and the person keeping him afloat, never missing an opportunity to score a point. But across the years we see she develops a respect and care for him that becomes surprisingly touching, and under the prickly and deeply sarcastic demeanour, Grieg reveals Jean’s deeper emotions emerging from a lifetime of disappointments and limited opportunities for herself as she serves a succession of argumentative men.

Jean is also passionately devoted to the needs of the community, rather than the demands of the central party, which leads to much of the division with David, giving her a combative shell. But she is also the link between the MP and the grass roots support which she navigates with skill, and Grieg offers a picture of an incredibly smart woman, easily outwitting the smug Londoners, and teaching them the difference between party power and electoral support.

Martin Freeman’s David is actually a genuinely nice man, hugely out of his depth in the safe seat he’s parachuted into. New Labour through and through he’s passionate about making his party electable and frequently campaigns for the compromises needed to win and keep power in Number 10. The pull of local and national politics, is embodied in Freeman’s performance as David struggles to balance the growing loyalty he develops to the people he represents and his greater ambitions for personal authority and a Cabinet role.

As the years go by – or in this case backwards and then forwards again – Freeman shows how the optimism of David’s first election fades over the years, becoming not quite jaded but more aware of the cyclical nature of power and how quickly new initiatives fail, with pointed reference to the closure of a mine that became a data centre which itself became redundant. Freeman’s David is someone trying to do his best in the wrong constituency, torn between an expectant future and the grim reality of brief influence and then obscurity. ‘I’d better brush up on my Paso Doble’ he remarks as the wrong kind of glittery future beckons.

Arguably the supporting characters are little more than sketched, but Rachael Stirling has lots of fun playing David’s snobby London wife Elizabeth, who sneers at his lack of ambition, frequently going head-to-head with Jean and losing. Susan Wokoma and Dickon Tyrrell add texture as grassroots party members who clash with David, but help to create the context against which the two leads exist.

With press night tomorrow, the flow and comic timing – already working well – can only tighten as the run continues. Perhaps it doesn’t quite have the impact of Ink, one of those rare plays that just captures the imagination, the extra magic that separates the 5-star show from the plethora of 4s, but Labour of Love remains a well-constructed and perceptive comedy that explains why political parties so often tear themselves apart. James Graham is fast establishing himself as our leading political playwright, and Labour of Love is full of insight, deep research and with Graham’s distinctive ability to entertainingly interpret post-war history.

Labour of Love is at the Noel Coward Theatre until 2 December 2017. Tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culuralcap1


%d bloggers like this: