If you walk down a certain small stretch of St Martin’s Lane (as I do most weekday mornings) you’ll notice a few strange things. There are two new straight plays on at two neighbouring West End theatres, one about 100 metres down the road from the other. They’re by the same playwright, James Graham. And, if you’re there before 10am, there’s almost certainly a little queue of people (several on portable chairs) waiting for returns outside each of them.
Horrible theatre hipster that I am, I find this incredibly heartening. Ink and Labour of Love aren’t jukebox musicals. They’re not revivals. They’re plays which are soaked in 20th century history but still speak clearly to the current political moment, and ask huge questions. With slick plotting prioritised over poetic or emotional power, they’re also not 100% my favourite kind of theatre, but they’re so interesting that it doesn’t feel like it matters.
Labour of Love is substantially more trad than Ink, which benefitted from an opening run at the Almeida and an imaginative, grimily evocative production by Rupert Goold. By comparison, it feels a little, well, laboured. Graham has structured it as an elaborate formal game. The first act is made up of scenes that move backwards through time, the second act moves forward. The action is stuffily confined to the office of a local Labour party MP, who’s falling effortfully in love with his constituency agent.
Tonally, it’s about halfway between The Thick of It and the prime minister plotline in Love Actually. Martin Freeman plays David, an MP who’s endearingly, puppyishly enthusiastic about his ideas for transforming his safe seat into the jumping off point for a career – and about the wisdom of introducing smart trams. His co-star Tamsin Grieg is wonderful (as ever) playing the local, cynical agent who sees through his awkward puns to the nascent puffed up Blairite underneath. And punctures him wherever she can. Behind the wordplay, their relationship is pretty much built on the moral wranglings of Old versus New Labour. As someone who came of age in the tail end of the latter, it’s fascinating to see the waves of enthusiasm that both were built on. The populist face of Old Labour is all inspiring songs, brass bands, Marxism and faith in postwar socialism. New Labour is education, job creation, fighting poverty and a kind of nebulous British coolness.
Jeremy Herrin’s production is blunt, brash and a little bit overpowering, emphasising the now-fading role of television with huge screens of projected news footage that take us from decade to decade. It brings out the jokes, and there are a lot of them. Silly jokes. Dad jokes. Too many of them fall on the shoulders of David’s posh, ambitious wife, who makes the unforgivable error of wanting more than a life keeping the home fires burning in a small Nottinghamshire town.
Otherwise, the humour has a kind of cosiness to it which belies the bleakness of Graham’s underlying message. This is really the story of a former quarry town being hollowed out, of a party built on real values losing its heart, and replacing it with something shiny but unsound.
Chants of ‘Oh, Jeremy Corbyn!’ ring out at the play’s opening and end, an ambiguous harbinger of something new, like the sound of a giant footsteps that ended Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem. Graham is too smart to commit himself to an interpretation of Corbynism, but what he does do is neatly separate it from the history that’s gone before.
It’s a caution that feels typical of this political moment – one that feels like a prolonged breath in as we all wonder what’s going to happen next, and when. Graham’s approach is circumspection, resurrecting old Labour Party debates and raising the ghosts of the towns that neither party wants to talk about. And if it gets overcome by romance and sentimentality, that’s because there’s no other way of soaring to an emotional high in a narrative that’s bookended by hopeful, fearful waiting.
Labour of Love is on until 2 December 2017 at the Noel Coward Theatre. Click here for more details.