Love is all around us at the Noël Coward Theatre this autumn. It’s Labour intensive and dirty, and you can catch it in James Graham’s latest blockbuster, the political romcom Labour of Love. Starring Martin Freeman and Tamsin Greig, the play is not just a history lesson of the Labour party in the last 27 years, but it’s also a tender and humorous portrayal of the ups and downs of friendships and marriages. It’s funny, sharp and rude. There’s a dash of nostalgia, with echoes of Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Merrily we Roll Along’ as we travel from 2017 back to 1990 and forward to the present again.
Mournfully We Roll
Nottinghamshire, 2017. A drab and dreary Labour constituency office. Labour MP David Lyons (Freeman) is about to lose his historically safe seat to the Tories. His agent, Jean Whittaker (Greig), is swearing. A lot. Enter Lyons’s absent wife (Rachel Stirling) who wants to come back into her husband’s life.
The plot then starts rolling, with throwbacks as far as Lyons’s first election in 1990, and clips from various stages of the Labour party’s journey, starting with Neil Kinnock, through to the Blair landslide and forward to Jeremy Corbyn. Whittaker is a socialist, a true-blooded ‘Church’ member. Lyons is a centrist and a Blairite. Lyons’ wife is a lawyer who dreams of a life far away from the drab confines of the Nottinghamshire constituency. She’s a Cherie Blair, he could be Tony.
A Tale of Two Parties
Labour of Love is as much about the germinating friendship between Lyons and Whittaker as it is about the yo-yoing fortunes of the Labour party. Hats off to Tamsin Greig who stepped in to the role at the last minute (Sarah Lancashire had to bow out due to health reasons). Martin Freeman does a fine job of trying to shake Dr Watson off his thespian shoulders. His Lyons is a man slightly at odds with his beliefs, an Oxford-educated idealist who does not accept defeat, who might even be a Tory in Labour’s clothing. There’s a delightful chemistry between Greig and Freeman who even pull off some suave dance moves together. Is there an appearance in ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ in the offing, I wonder?
Labour of Love is a very British affair. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who doesn’t have a pretty good understanding of the political landscape over here. But you don’t need to tow the party line: if you’re not keen on the ins and outs of the British Labour party, there’s a safe seat down the road in the Duke of York Theatre. Ink, another James Graham chef d’oeuvre, is titillatingly good with a liberal sprinkling of genius.
Labour of Love, Noël Coward Theatre. On until 2 December 2017.
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