Review - I'm Not Running at the National Theatre

Sian Brooke in I'm Not Running
Our critics rating: 
Date: 
Wednesday, 10 October, 2018
Review by: 

Sir David Hare is effectively the house playwright of the National Theatre, now premiering his 17th original play there (plus adaptations of Lorca, Brecht and Pirandello). But we are observing the law of diminishing returns in action as he revisits familiar territory, sketching in the domestic behind the political for his second play to be set behind-the-scenes of the Labour Party.

Where his 1995 play The Absence of War -- part of his state of the nation trilogy that also included Racing Demon about the church and Murmuring Judges about the judiciary -- was a big, public play that played out the leadership battle that prefigured their unsuccessful General Election campaign in 1992, I'm not Running is a more domestically-centred drama around the long-term rivalry of former student lovers Pauline Gibson and Jack Gould, who also engage in a leadership battle for the heart and soul of the Labour party.

Playing out in scenes that flit backwards and forwards between 1996 and today, and from Newcastle (where they were both undergraduates) to Corby (where she becomes a hospital doctor and then a campaigner against its closure), Hastings (where her alcoholic mother is living and dying), and London, it's a dense but less than intense play. It opens at a press conference, called by Pauline's press manager, to announce that she won't be running for the leadership. If you don't want a spoiler, do not turn to the back page of the published script where the predictable outcome is revealed.

In-between, we get lots (and lots) of earnest speechifying, betrayals and deceit -- the usual rough and tumble of politics. But whereas James Graham last year with his West End play Labour of Love provided a comic portrait of local constituency Labour party politics that had a sense of fun, this play drains the life out of its characters with its deadly earnestness and predicability.

Neil Armfield's production also feels remote and lost on the wide Lyttelton stage. With the action on Ralph Myers's rotating set of a two-sided wall positioned centrestage, with large lighting arms to the sides, it also feels really artificial: like we're watching the action unfolding on a film set.

The performances, too, are encouraged to go bigger than they necessarily need to: Sian Brooke as the doctor-turned-politician adopts exaggerated postures to define her character. (I couldn't help imagining what Cate Blanchett would have done with the role). As her former lover turned rival, Alex Hassell is deliberately bullish and unsympathetic, while Liza Sadovy as her mother piles on both the booze and eccentricity.

None of this, alas, feels very believable; and a key plot device of a political activist, played by Amaka Okafor, is almost laughably implausible.

Sadly, Hare's latest is a dull bore.

(Photo by Mark Douet)

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