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Labour of Love – Review * 22 October 2017

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A world premiere play, Labour of Love is a very British examination of the political debate in the UK for the past three decades, all safely portrayed from within the local offices of a Labour MP in the north of England. Martin Freeman portrays that MP, David Lyons, and Tamsin Grieg takes the co-lead as his constituency agent Jean Whittaker. The play is written by James Graham, who is making a specialty of writing politically focused material including 'The Vote' and 'Coalition', both released in 2015 and both featuring Mark Gatiss, as well as the screenplay for BBC Films' 'Gypsy Boy', which is set to star Benedict Cumberbatch.

Firstly, particular note needs to be paid to the structure of the play. It opens on the night of 8 June 2017, with Lyons desperately awaiting the call for results in his constituency while acknowledging the outcome is too close to call. It's instantly immediate, considering its set a mere 4 months ago at the time of writing, but from there the play - and particularly the staging - plays a remarkable trick, reversing backwards in time through other significant moments in the history of the Labour Party as seen in the prism of this safe seat in the party heartland. It takes us back through the victory of Tony Blair in 1997 all the way to middling helplessness of opposition on Lyons' election, with the emerging irony that he went from an exciting young representation of New Labour to the apparent enemy of the current party status quo.

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These changes in era are presented through quick fire cast costume changes and set redressing - the secret of which is only revealed at the very end - all bridged by archival video of the political news of the times. The sense of reversing and then accelerating back and then forward through time is magically presented, with little details on the set like technology changing one of the standouts. If you're British and of a certain age you'll definitely feel a little pang of nostalgia when Teletext makes an appearance at one point, while also not terribly missing the crawling slowness of the office fax machine.

James Graham's script is naturalistically funny, reliant on wordplay (and it must be noted, a chunk of the strongest of language) with the occasional bit of visual comedy by the performers. Throughout, it takes little moments to point out the uneasy incompatibility between the aims of party ideology and the aspirations of those in the party. It's also a story of paths not taken and chances missed in the personal lives of the characters - Lyons has been imported to the constituency and brought his ambitious wife Elizabeth with him (Rachel Stirling, previously in The Recruiting Officer opposite Mark Gatiss). This tiny corner of the north doesn't meet the expectations of Elizabeth, and so David spends much of the play as a lonely yet extremely sincere figure, wannabe slick yet eventually rumpled, who is buckled by his wife's desire for a lavish lifestyle. This sort of material is bread and butter for Martin Freeman, but he spends much of his time as a foil to the ferociously no-nonsense form of Tamsin Grieg as Jean, who gets the vast majority of the funniest lines alongside the bulk of the bad language. Both are actually at ideological loggerheads - he is intent on progressive change to secure victory, she is a dyed in the wool socialist - that causes the pair to resemble a bickering old married couple that is regardless deeply dependent on each other.

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There's nothing terribly revelatory about Labour of Love all told, yet it is a good evening out at the theatre. It is perhaps slightly too long for a comfortable evening in the old seats of this beautiful Victorian theatre, but it plucks at your thoughts while not examining things too deeply. It's ultimately an examination of the uneasy relationships between people who should share the same views - they aren't after all on opposing sides of the political divide - and the hope that in the end this ideological gulf can finally be bridged.

Labour of Love is performing at the Noel Coward Theatre until December 2 2017. There are tickets still available from https://labouroflovetheplay.co.uk/.    

James Graham's script of the play is available for purchase from Amazon

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