Tag Archives: political theatre

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

Advertisements

Consent -National Theatre

Consent - National Theatre

The title of a play may not seem that significant but often it is the first indicator of what your work is about, and long before a potential viewer reads the synopsis or even buys a ticket it has to peak their interest. Consider, how much more important that becomes when your play is about issues as complex as rape and consent which may already be a difficult topic for audiences to witness on stage. However incendiary the viewpoints discussed in the play, not only does its descriptive language need to be respectful of real experience but a title should be a signal of what to expect.

So the National Theatre’s new play by Nine Raine promises much and Consent is a fantastic title that intriguingly gives nothing away about the plot, but all the while signifying a potentially mind-expanding and stimulating night of debate. Surprising then that the play itself is barely about consent at all but it is a play about the anxiety of middle class marriage… sorry that should be another play about the anxiety of middle class marriage, in which rape is used as a backdrop to other stories and eventually as a tool in a custody battle.

I was genuinely surprised that the critics loved this play so much and saw its approach to the issue of consent as ‘genuinely bruising’ (Time Out) and ‘funny, pointed and complex’ (WhatsOnStage), with only Natasha Tripney in The Stage having some reservations about Raine’s approach – ‘the woman who was raped’ is ‘little more than a dramatic catalyst…It’s a tired, tedious device’. Deservedly, most of their praise is reserved for the writing, the humour and the performances all of which are unarguably excellent and engaging, and under any other title this would be a barbed examination of human behaviour, what it is not is a play that’s really about consent. It’s a good story but it doesn’t achieve what it sets out to do, as fellow theatregoer remarked, it’s actually “a bit lightweight”.

The play opens in the middle class living room of Ed and Kitty, he’s a respected barrister and she is a new mum, and their lawyer friends Jake and Rachel, also parents, have come to see the new baby, along with actress pal Zara. Soon it transpires that Jake has cheated on Rachel and she throws him out which leads to much too-ing and froing over whether to take him back. Meanwhile Ed takes on the defendant in a rape case – against his old rival Tim – and is shown grilling the victim and casting aspersions on her sexual history to win the case. Using this as a trigger, his coldness starts to seep into his own marriage much to Kitty’s frustration who looks for solace elsewhere. As the various couples attempt to figure out who and what they want, an accusation of marital rape from within the group shakes their complacency.

Raine’s writing is interesting, funny and evocative of a particular kind of existence, and although her characters are classic middle class people drinking wine on expensive sofas, there is clearly depth and purpose to her writing that makes them more than caricatures. But 85-90% of this drama is about who’s sleeping with who, and it is only Raine’s set of slightly unlikeable but interesting characters with plenty of depth that prevents Consent from being a borderline soap opera.  And this is a group of people who like to hurt each other, sometimes unwittingly but often with the full knowledge of what they’re doing which does make for some entertaining theatre, but it doesn’t really need a shoe-horned rape storyline to achieve that.

After years of seeing rape as frequent short-hand for violence against women, particularly in sensationalist crime dramas with extremely psychotic serial killers, more recently television writers have gone to considerable lengths to depict the traumatic and procedural aftermath as well as the long-term impact on the individual and her family. Eastenders, Apple Tree Yard and Broadchurch have been singled out for praise for their sensitive handling of the complexity of rape cases and the vagaries of the justice system that seem stacked against a complainant. A few scenes of Raine’s play attempt to explore a similar area, shedding light on the way the victim’s life is “attacked” while the perpetrator is better protected by regulation.

Three key scenes are presented in the play; first showing lawyer Tim seeing Gayle moments before giving her statement in court, the two have never met before and he refuses to listen to her side of the story – she is a witness in the crown case and has no legal representation of her own and cannot jeopardise his impartiality by telling him too much. No one has explained this to her and her distress is evident. In a second scene (after more marital hoo-ha in middle England), Ed cross-questions Gail in court, drawing attention to her promiscuous past, trying to trip her up and turning her testimony against her.

It’s brutal stuff and Heather Craney’s performance reveals Gayle’s desperation, confusion and bewilderment well, but we’re not supposed to be focusing on her, all of this is designed to make us think about Ed. Ditto when Gayle unexpectedly, and rather improbably, turns up on their doorstep to cast gloom on their lovely boozy Christmas party, she is made to look hysterical and perhaps as mad as Ed has painted her in court, none of which does any service to rape survivors, but the consequences for her aren’t important, we need to think about Ed’s marriage. And Gayle’s character is then brutally cast aside, her work done as a device for act one.

Ben Chaplin is really such an excellent actor and, although he is too rarely seen on the British stage or TV, his performance as Ed is one of the things worth staying for. We discover early on that he previously cheated on Kitty, something she doesn’t think he is sufficiently sorry for all these years later, and his complacency makes him a difficult man to like. His prosecution of the rape case is used to show us his lack of empathy and his adherence to enshrined principles of the law, rather than what is true justice, all of which he brings back into his marriage and drives the plot. But somehow you feel for him, a man who believes he atoned for his crime and lived honestly since, but still on the naughty step and later in the play when it all comes crashing down, Chaplin elicits genuine empathy for his plight.

The other characters don’t fare so well despite uniformly excellent performances, and besides poor Gayle, the other female roles are almost equally two dimensional, often actually hysterical. Priyanga Burford’s Rachel is that wonderful modern double-bluff that tries to make a female character look more important than she is. On the surface, she is a lawyer too, she gets involved in the wranglings the men have about techniques to redirect a witness and calls them out when they do it at home, so she must be a properly written modern woman right? Wrong, all we actually see her do is worry about her children and whether her husband loves her – she’s a sheep in feminist clothing, trapped in her domestic sphere.

Similarly, Zara (Daisy Haggard) is the free-spirited member of the group who doesn’t quite fit in with the others. She’s out there working as an actress, single and living a very different life. But being in her mid-30s what can she possibly want for the future – an Oscar, an Olivier and a penthouse on the Riviera? Nope she wants a husband and a baby, so her only storyline is to be set-up with dull lawyer Tim and be accused of sleeping with Ed. For Rachel and Zara careers mean nothing unless you have a man to rely on.

And so to Kitty played with care and emotional insight by Anna Maxwell Martin but who still only manages to exist within the confines of men and her child. It’s never made clear whether Kitty is a stay-at-home mum, is on maternity leave or has given up some kind of career to care for her child, but Maxwell Martin conveys her boredom and frustration really well. The lingering resentment of her husband’s infidelity is carried like a stone inside her and we see what tips her over the edge. The problem is once she’s there it becomes rather hysterical and self-justifying in a way that’s difficult to empathise with considering the damage she does is equal to Ed’s.

The men feel a little more rounded, but then cads and bounders always do. The loathsome Jake openly cheats on his wife and barely sees the problem which Adam James delivers with punch, but, again a fine actor, James makes him convincing, especially in giving way to his emotion at the possibility of losing his family, seeking repentance. This is the crucial difference in the way these characters are written, the men get to be flawed and sorry, subtly giving vent to their conflict and being redeemed, while the women scream, shout and behave irrationally, before taking back their cheating partners.

Finally, the issue of marital rape is arguably the most controversial aspect of this show, and yet none of the critics have had any concerns about the way it is portrayed. We only see the aftermath in which the characters involved discuss their actions, one surprised to learn it’s being now described as rape, thinking he had non-verbal consent, while the other insisting it was. Only here in maybe two scenes does the play really start to unpick the blurred lines of actually giving consent to any acts between two people.

Frustratingly, this is muddied by the idea of a custody battle, and it’s revealed that the act is described as rape only after the husband has threatened to remove the wife’s access to the child. The implication is clear that regardless of what happened, she is using the idea of rape to guarantee sole custody and when told that it will have no bearing on the decision (again a shocking insight into the justice system) the allegation is left unpursued. There is an ambiguity over what happened but after seeing Gayle’s story, to use rape as plot device to fulfil other motives feels dishonest, disingenuous and irresponsible.

It may seem a little thing but the title of a play can matter so much, and in the case of Consent it seems the audience is being mis-sold a story about the pitfalls of long relationships and the hurt people cause each other. On its own, Raine’s play is interesting with detailed observation of the way people interact with one another but it’s not really about consent. And while I may have missed something everyone else has taken from it, its approach to portraying the consequences of rape could have been considerable more inciteful than this production allows it to be.

Consent is at the National Theatre until 17 May. Currently available tickets start at £50 but it is part of the Friday Rush scheme offering tickets for £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


The Trial – Young Vic

I’m not going to lie to you, this is a tough one. The Young Vic has had a string of award-winning successes in the past 12 months leading to West End and now Broadway transfers. Understandably then, there is a buzz about the place these days and most shows sell out fairly quickly. This adaptation of Kafka’s novel The Trial was all but gone even before the press night so confident are audiences in the quality of Young Vic productions. And of course the lure of Rory Kinnear cannot be underestimated either. He’s an actor that’s been in everything, including roles in Bond and the recent Casual Vacancy on the BBC, and while he may not quite be a household name yet, is very highly regarded among theatre watchers – much as Benedict Cumberbatch used to be, and we all know how that turned out.

The Trial is a part absurdist, part-Brechtian, part-naturalistic drama about a totalitarian state that arrests Josef K a seemingly upstanding citizen one morning for an unspecified crime. But he’s not detained and while he awaits a series of hearing dates at ‘The Court’, Josef tries to discover what his crime has been and attends a number of surreal encounters with court officials and a potential lawyer while becoming increasingly famous for his unknown misdemeanour. There is a slim chance he could be set free but he must try to recall every bad deed he has ever committed which means filling out endless reams of yellow forms. Before long Josef discovers that a sure case of mistaken identity has taken over his entire life, but will he ever clear his name with the faceless Court?

The first thing you’ll notice as you enter the auditorium is the crazy design which has turned the Young Vic’s space into a giant orange courtroom with the audience seated in raked boxes facing each other. In the centre is a giant keyhole which rises up to reveal a treadmill on which the set is built underneath. It’s a neat way to imply the nature of this world based on secret observation although you might have to push pictures of David Frost and Lloyd Grosman from your mind as you muse on ‘who lives in a house like this’. The treadmill is clever way to move the action smoothly from scene to scene while implying a sense of inevitability in Josef’s story – once he’s set on this path it (somewhat literally) only goes in one direction.

But this is no 1984 and the audience is never allowed to get too close to the action, as well as being deliberately alienated from the central character by the language. In his monologue moments Josef speaks in a heightened way using ‘im’ and ‘ooo’ to refer to himself which reminded me of a James Joyce style deliberately intended to stop you feeling too much sympathy for him as we almost clinically observe his decline. This is the most challenging aspect of the play which clearly made it difficult for some members of the audience to understand what was going on. If straightforward, naturalistic theatre is your preference then this may not be an easy thing to watch, and would probably suit you better if you prefer more alternative and surreal styles.

On the whole the acting is extremely good and while your engagement with the plot can falter (and certainly did for a lot of people) there are some great performances. Rory Kinnear is of course superb as Josef, expertly plotting his increased frenzy as the process of discovering his crime begins to take over his entire life. Kinnear’s previous work, including a wonderfully malevolent Iago at the National in 2013, has created a great sense of expectation around his stage appearances, so it seems timely that he should join forces with the equally trendy Young Vic. In Kinnear’s performance you also get the sense that Josef was himself once a faceless man, trundling absently through life and working in a bank, making no mark on the world, but the layers of bureaucracy that suddenly make him famous are impossible to manage. The distancing of the audience means we never really get to know Josef and this story becomes a faceless man taking on a faceless system.

Kate Flynn is also excellent playing a number of key women in Josef’s life including the neighbour he is in love with and a school girl assistant to the lawyer who falls for him, as well as a stripper (who is too obviously wearing flesh coloured shorts) entertaining him as the play opens. If the text is making a point about the facelessness of these women who possibly in Josef’s mind all look the same, it is never made entirely clear but certainly suggests the interchangeability of the individual. There’s also a decent cast of additional characters who are all part of this treadmill of bureaucracy from Bogart-esque people in macs who are not even slightly scary to surreal court officials talking administrative nonsense and Josef’s bustling bank colleagues.

It does suffer from projection problems with the sound of the treadmill and the music periodically obscuring the dialogue, especially when the actor is facing away from you, which certainly doesn’t help audience engagement. While the acting is good and there is the germ of an engaging story at times, it is a hard piece to appreciate. Part of that this heightened brightly coloured world feels as though it’s trying too hard to be full of metaphor and meaning, which combined with the arms-length feel of the production creates a tension between wanting us to understand and pushing us away, thus making it difficult for some people to stay awake, never mind keep the story and themes straight long enough to form an opinion on whether they enjoyed it.

There’s some good stuff here in both the use of innovative techniques and yet another complete transformation of the Young Vic space. Rory Kinnear is certainly marvellous and probably deserves an award for maintaining 2 straight hours on stage, but ultimately something is not quite coming together here and you don’t leave mulling over the injustice of this state or being suitably warned about the over-systematisation of government. Although it was practically sold out before it opened, I have a feeling some of those pre-sales will regret their hasty purchase, so if it sounds like your thing returns will probably be fairly easy to come by. It’s not dreadful by any means but is likely only to suit particular theatre tastes, and not quite as engrossing as other recent Young Vic successes.

The Trial is at the Young Vic until 22nd August. Tickets are from £19-£35.

NB: An alternative version of this review from the press night performance was previously published on The Public Reviews website. The review above refers to a separate performance.


%d bloggers like this: