Playwright of the moment James Graham has pulled off a rare double coup: not only is his name now gracing the marquee of two London theatres, metres from each other on St Martin's Lane, but also the newest of them is that very rare specimen, a new play that has opened directly into the West End without a prior try-out elsewhere. And in a third remarkable fact, its entire London run was virtually sold out before it opened, too. (Nor, in a fourth fact, has Graham left behind the regions that he comes from for the metropolitan lights, with two more new plays on the imminent horizon at Chichester and Hull).
Last year the prolific Graham transferred a play called Monster Raving Loony from Plymouth to London's Soho Theatre, about Screaming Lord Sutch, who as leader of a party of that name stood in (and lost) 40 general elections. That was rich territory for comedy, of course, and the intentionally ramshackle revue-like structure he gave to it evoked and referenced everything from Carry On to The Goon Show and Morecambe and Wise.
Now he turns to the rather more serious matter of the Labour Party, whose ideological and personal struggles he chronicles through the story of a long-serving (27 years) constituency Labour MP, as he faces losing his Nottinghamshire seat to the Conservatives in the election earlier this year. As a newly resurgent Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn now stands within shooting distance of reclaiming Downing Street from a rapidly failing Theresa May, it may seem odd to be focusing on a probable electoral failure, but it is nonetheless timely - and salutary - for Graham to remind us of the philosophical struggles that could still stand between the party and victory.
These are superbly articulated by the clash of values between Martin Freeman's Blairite MP David Lyons, a thrusting Oxford-educated man with an aspirational careerist wife, and his constituency agent Jean (played by Tamsin Greig, in a mid-rehearsal replacement for the originally announced Sarah Lancashire), the wife of the MP he succeeded into the seat.
The play is partly a history lesson rewinding through Labour's successes, failures and challenges over the 27 years since Thatcher tearfully left Downing Street, through Tony Blair's 1997 Labour victory, the confusions of the 2010 hung parliament that the Conservatives and Lib-Dems led, to this year's snap general election that's helped hasten the demise of the Conservative party as we currently know it - but also sweeps away such figures from the other side of the House like Freeman's fictitious MP.
But Graham colours it not with politics but humanity, as we watch the mostly combative but occasionally tender relationship between the MP and his agent. As played by the splendid Martin Freeman and especially Greig with her masterful comic timing, it is highly entertaining as well as educational.
Jeremy Herrin's propulsive production, with Duncan McLean's video and projections helping to set the changing times, also features sterling work from Rachael Stirling as the MP's wife and Dickon Tyrrell as the leader of the local council.
As with This House (soon to tour the UK), James Graham is able to make the workings of politics and politicians both theatrically compelling and deeply human.
Labour of Love Tickets are available now.
What the popular press said...
"What’s striking is just how coherent this up-to-the-minute response is. It gets to the heart of the ideological rifts and tiffs that have beset Labour since its divisive fightback against the humiliations of the Thatcher years." Dominic Cavendish, Telegraph (four stars)
"He not only provides a portrait of the historic ups and downs of the Labour party; he also charts, with surprising tenderness, a turbulent relationship between an MP and his constituency agent – beautifully played by Martin Freeman and Tamsin Greig – in a way that recalls Much Ado About Nothing." - Michael Billington, Guardian (four stars)
"This play is truly awwlll right, a rom-com pol-com that is knockabout funny and politically incisive." - Ann Treneman, Times (four stars)
"In its brightest moments this nearly three-hour show is an inventive hybrid of Much Ado About Nothing, Yes Minister and Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along." - Henry Hitchings, Evening Standard (four stars)
Photos courtesy Johan Persson