David Hare’s new political drama is an astute satire on the inner workings of the Labour party – at least, it is for any viewers lucky enough to live in the parallel universe in which Ed Miliband won the 2015 election. Back in our own dimension, the narrative is too far removed from the country we actually live in to offer its talented cast anything very interesting to play with. It follows Pauline Gibson (Siân Brooke), a doctor-turned-independent MP who enters Parliament after leading a campaign to save the hospital in Corby, Northamptonshire from the closure threatened by uncaring Blairite-type modernisers. When a vacancy opens for Labour leader, speculation becomes rife that Pauline – considered the most popular politician in the country – will stand, despite not being a member of the party.
The narrative jumps back and forth between present day London and scenes set over the prior 22 years in her constituency of Corby, her home town of Hastings and Newcastle, where she goes to university and where she first meets her boyfriend, and later nemesis, Jack Gould (Alex Hassall). The son of Labour royalty, Jack’s thirsty political ambitions are clear from his first scene, set in Newcastle in 1997, onwards – though he won’t quite admit it at first.
Brooke’s performance is spot on as the outsider who is confrontational, dismissive of political shysters, and adored for it. The character of Jack is a little more one-dimensional: he represents the empty ambition of the career politician, making him something of a pantomime villain – an impression reinforced by the blunt misogynistic attitudes that emerge from him. But if the part is a bit lacking, Hassell makes up for it with an interpretation that brilliantly channels the ghost of David Miliband (helped along by Hassell’s rather Miliband-y face). There’s also a bit of Blair in there, while Brooke variously calls to mind Stella Creasy, Emily Thornberry and Nicola Sturgeon.
So yes, they both feel like real politicians. But the themes of this story and its present-day setting plonk the play right into the uncanny valley. There’s no Brexit in this universe, and no Corbyn. And yes, I know that history books will tell us that there was a “before time” when the role of the Prime Minister was something other than trying in vain to keep their party united around a position that will certainly be rejected in a negotiation for a massive constitutional change that was brought about in a referendum called by a leader who didn’t support it and that the people who will have to live with its consequences don’t want – but my mind is foggy and weary and I don’t believe in my heart that this can ever have been the case.
It’s hard to escape the sense that Hare has been kicking this idea round since the Ed Miliband-era of Labour, or even longer. There’s no reason political drama should have to perfectly replicate the conditions of its time, but the issue with I’m Not Running is that it specifically seems to belong somewhere between 1997 and 2015. The obvious real inspiration for Pauline is Richard Taylor, who became MP for Wyre Valley from 2001 to 2010 after running the Save Kidderminster Hospital Campaign. Jack, meanwhile, represents a strain of Labour politics that is gone, and shows no sign of coming back.
It’s not that the themes have no relevance at all – the idea of the draw of the political outsider, represented by Pauline, certainly resonates. But Hare could have done a far better job of illuminating this if his play had been set either in the recognisable present, or somewhere that was more fully fictionalised. At it is, the often sharp dialogue, and performances – which also include the excellent Amaka Okafor as idealistic young campaigner Meredith Ikeji – don’t really hit home as they should.
‘I’m Not Running’ is on at the National Theatre until 21st January 2019. More info and tickets here.