Britain  •  Reviews

Labour of Love: a marriage of convenience

25 October 2017

LABOUR OF LOVE sounds promising. A comedy, it revolves around two protagonists: Blairite MP for Mansfield David Lyons (Martin Freeman) and his traditional Old Labour constituency office secretary Jean Whittaker (Tamsin Greig). It recounts their 27 years of conflict over what Labour stands for and the party’s relationship with the working class.

It doesn’t quite deliver what it promises, and what it does deliver is not particularly convincing. But let’s start with the positives.

The play is bang up to date, beginning and ending on 8 June 2017, with Lyons losing his seat. The structure of the play involves a series of flashbacks, running in reverse chronological order back through 2015, 2001, 1994, 1992 and finally 1990, with Margaret Thatcher’s resignation. After the interval, the play fast-forwards through these again to arrive back at the present.

This device allows the audience to see the characters at various key moments for the party and for themselves. So we gradually learn that Lyons was imposed on the local party by London HQ, that Jean was the wife of the previous MP, and that David was challenged by Len, an “old Labour” diehard who decided to run as an independent and who effectively cost Lyons his seat.

The acting is great, the jokes are mostly funny and it was great to be able to hear every word and see every move in a lovely music hall era theatre for just £10. So why did I leave feeling cheated?

The ideological message of the play is that Labour does not belong to either the left or the right, but can only succeed when the conflicting wings of the party unite to create something bigger and for everyone. A convenient message for modern times indeed, with Jeremy Corbyn and Tom Watson kissing and making up at this year’s conference; but unfortunately not a convenient truth.

To tell how crassly and unconvincingly this message is put across, I am going to break the golden rule of reviews and, at the risk of being expelled from the Writers’ Guild, reveal the ending. Look away now if you don’t want to know (though everyone on the back row with me saw it coming).

After failed marriages, failed remarriages and classic misunderstandings (Jean wrote an incoherent message on a flip-chart, which when she read it out backwards – why? – revealed how much she admired David), David and Jean fall into each other’s arms.

David explains: “The party was not hijacked from the left by Tony Blair. Nor was it stolen from the right by Jeremy Corbyn. The real party belongs to you, Jean.”. To which she replies after a pause: “Who’s Eugene?”.

Good joke, poor politics. The lazy assumption – in fact a piece of “received wisdom” crafted by hacks (and playwrights) – that “ordinary” members are neither interested in nor ultimately affected by the battle for the party’s soul is nonsense.

But here we are presented with the idea of a party run by patronage, where the former MP can give his seat to his secretary without so much as a vote. Having promised in the early scenes to deliver satire in the vein of The Thick of It, in the second half the play peters out into a Hugh Grant-style rom-com: ultimately a good premise for a play wasted.

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