Jack Thorne’s new play is an impassioned call to arms at a time when its tale of local council rebellion against central government – its stand for action versus weary resignation in the face of relentless cuts – feels like tomorrow’s headline. It brims with ideas and is fiercely engaging in its wit and intelligence. But it sometimes struggles as a piece of theatre.
What Thorne does well is convey Westminster’s detachment from the rest of the country, bleakly rooted in a yawning lack of interest in anything outside London and elections. As Mark – a Labour councillor in a regional town – opens the play struggling to rehearse his announcement of budget cuts, it’s ‘cuts’ to ‘cunts’ as the Council is forced to choose between slashing street lighting, day-care and Sure-Start children’s centres or old people’s homes.
Thorne gives us a crowd of Council members whose reasons for being there are as personal and local as the ramifications of their decision-making for the communities who will be affected. Stella Gonet’s Council leader, Hilary, has entered politics via a school governorship, while Mark’s ex-wife runs one of the day-care centres under threat of closure. Their clashes over cuts and how to raise their son exist in the same tension-filled space.
This focus on localism is laid bare in a great scene at the start of the second act, in which staunch old Labourite George pays a beleaguered Mark – his daughter Julie’s boyfriend – a visit. When party principle has been sacrificed, he tells him, all that is left is to do right by where you live. It’s a bleak message about politics’ broader state of moral bankruptcy – a condemnation of both New Labour and the Coalition government – delivered with utter believability by Tom Georgeson.
The play could do with more of these moments – when the conviction of its ideas is coupled to real dramatic weight and heft. Thorne’s sharp about lazy action-substitutes like e-petitions and twists humour out of the mundaneness of Council business with characteristic deftness. He diffuses much of the front-of-stage earnestness with blunt bursts of wit. And yet the human drama – arguably so important here – feels muffled beneath speeches or lost in overly fragmentary scenes. The characters never fully bloom into life.
The script is rife with a type of hyper-articulacy – particularly when it comes to Tommy Knight’s snarky Jake, Mark’s teenage son – that feels like an imposition rather than characterisation. It’s often funny, and clever, but sometimes fails to ring true beyond what might be expedient for the scene at hand. The play strives to present a real picture of regional Britain, but, crucially, its people don’t feel particularly real.
That’s not a comment on the performances, which are generally very good. Paul Higgins brings a crumpled weariness to ex-alcoholic Mark, struggling to do the right thing in an impossible situation, while Gonet tempers Hilary’s strident schoolmarmishness with a haze of vulnerability. And as they limber up (as if in the gym) on designer Tom Scutt’s replica of a faded town hall – complete with parquet floor and piano – director John Tiffany captures a jittery sense of embattlement.
There’s some powerful and perceptive writing here, particularly once the Council rebels against central government by refusing to set a budget. As the cry for devolution within England grows ever louder, this scenario is grippingly plausible. But Thorne strains to reconcile portraying the realistically downbeat outcome of this revolt with the play’s idealistic impulse. A final park-bench chat between old George and precocious Jake about the value of trying, of not accepting the same old story, promises redemption. But its symbolism – however attractive – just feels too neat.