Right, first order of business: the idea that this is somehow a polite little comedy about the Labour Party is just straight-up wrong. Nor would it be accurate to say it is a completely serious vivisection of leftist politics, because it’s not that either. The best way to think of it is Much Ado About Nothing in a constituency office. It’s about a relationship in a series of highly politicised circumstances – as are most good dramas, to be fair.
I loved it. It crackles and sparkles and waltzes its way into your heart. Or at least what’s left of my cold, dead one. That in itself feels like an act of defiance, it refuses to be small or weepy when it could be witty and warm – which is what working class people tend to do, come to think of it. It takes on the character of the people it portrays.
David Lyons is a Labour MP, about to lose his seat in the 2017 general election. As his colleagues are avoiding the feared bloodbath, and with Labour gaining seats across the country, his hangs by a thread. His constituency agent, Jean, is getting the numbers in and swearing a lot. They’re both resigned to his fate. Once this is established, we cycle back through the years, stopping off at various key moments in the modern history of the Labour Party and David and Jean’s friendship all the way back to 1990, with the help of some excellent(?) wigs. After the interval we move the other way back to the present, and the play gains its political edge.
The first act is almost entirely comedic, the second reminds you exactly what Labour means to these people, and why the process of politics is so bloody painful. We watch New Labour rise, get elected and re-elected, and then start to collapse. We see the onset of austerity and the emergence of Corbyn. We also watch David’s conflict with the CLP, the collapse of his marriage, and watch his hair get greyer. We see Jean adjust to the realities of working for a Labour party that seems to brush over her principles, we see her widowed and re-married. You end up really rooting for these people – they’re like Benedick and Beatrice; constantly at each other’s throats but they’d be lost without each other. They are each other’s constant.
At the heart of this play is a conversation, literally and metaphorically, about who socialism belongs to. How can an ideology belong to a specific group of people? David is brought into a seat so safe that cottage cheese could get elected if it was red, but with a decidedly Blairite view of matters. He believes that it is only by appealing to the maximum number of people – moving towards the centre – that any form of social progress can occur. Jean is old-school Labour, devoted to its working-class roots, and wary of change – though not as inflexible as the CLP. The CLP is led by Len, a staunch socialist. Straightforward enough, except we come to learn it is David, not Len, who comes from the communities they claim to protect.
What is the value of a hard-line socialism when its chief proponents are those that learned the theory at university, not those who came from the communities socialism aims to emancipate? And yes, there are overlaps, but broadly speaking (and certainly in my experience) working-class people are pragmatic. They have to be. Principle for the sake of principle means very little when people are lining up at food banks. If a closer-to-the-centre Labour government stops this happening – who gives a shit if the red flag gets sung?
And I do think that. I agree with David. Yes, more should have been done, yes they were too safe, but New Labour did a lot of good (we’re not going into the Iraq war here, aight?) There shouldn’t necessarily be an apology for that, something I think Jean understands (I think. I THINK.) But the most moving part of the play is when Jean and David both lament what being left actually entails; the knowledge that the work will never be done. Nothing will ever be okay, to be actively left is resigning yourself to a life of sheer bloody hard work.
When Jean (SPOILERS) starts to entertain the possibility of replacing David as MP, right at the end of the play, they both lament that to be an MP is bloody hard work. There’s never been a worse time to be an MP, it’s like drinking from a poisoned chalice. Whatever they do, it will be viewed as a betrayal, because the act of politics is compromise. You want to help, and the people will resent you. It’s a proper tragedy, really.
Apparently now whenever I hear Moon River there’s two moments from plays I’ll recall. Prior and Louis dancing in Angels in America… and David and Jean waltzing in Labour of Love.
They’re played to perfection by Martin Freeman and Tamsin Greig. And I really do mean perfection. There’s a particular thing that Freeman does where he’s trying not to blow up, and he sort of takes a breath, and straightens his face, juts his chin and drops his arms. It’s never felt more real that when he’s the lone Blairite facing off a CLP that wants him out. Trying to retain his composure against those that see him as a betrayal of every value they hold dear.
Greig is a complete revelation. She’s made a career out of playing – wonderfully, I hasten to add – roles that are characterised by a sort of middle-class bothered-ness. But the second the lights went up and she was swearing profusely into a phone with a voice you don’t expect to hear from Greig, I was completely enthralled. She’s harsh and salty and coarse, all with an unshakeable conviction and an undeniable warmth. She has a natural comic instinct that she deploys effortlessly, landing joke after joke after joke. And there are a lot of jokes – the sheer volume of comedy in this play is quite striking. I was cackling. CACKLING I TELL YOU.
And they have such great chemistry. They so dominate the stage that when they’re not on together you’re counting the seconds until they are again. A proper modern-day Benedick and Beatrice (god I wish I’d seen Greig play it.)
For those of you that don’t know, I happen to be from the north. I also happen to feel incredibly strongly that the way northerners (and more generally, ‘regional’ and working classes voices) are represented on the national stages of this country is regularly inadequate and often insulting. I have written about such views in the past. I’m a big advocate of just plonking a play in the north without any explanation and demanding an audience take it seriously, and I’m also an advocate of work that is very specifically about northerners and their experiences.
Labour of Love is both. I kept thinking how easily it could have been set in London, but it’s not. It’s set in the north (Nottinghamshire is northern in my book.) This means that the characters have certain expectations of their lives and their culture – and it means the play can use a very particular kind of language and wit, which Graham harnesses wonderfully.
It is strange that there is a whole sub-genre of British media – film in particular – that is interested in working-class, normally Northern response to Thatcherism; Brassed Off, The Full Monty, Pride, Billy Elliot. They’re all comedies, with an edge for sure, but comedies nonetheless. Why? Is it because when dramas like I, Daniel Blake are made they get dismissed as propaganda? Maybe when it’s a comedy, there’s simply something to laugh at, there’s a distance that allows middle-class and Southern audiences to remove themselves (one line I didn’t laugh at, “I’d have taken Leeds.” Half the audience did, what exactly is inherently funny about Leeds, remind me?) But also, self-pity isn’t a thing we do well. Comedy has to be the healing process, the way we understand trauma. The line between accurate representation and ‘poverty porn’ is one that gets crossed waaaaaay too often; Labour of Love never shies away from the shit people have to go through, but its structure never allows anyone to wallow in it, nor pity the characters. And the actors treat it beautifully; Greig in particular just dances over the darkness in Jean’s life, so when it occasionally shows through the cracks, it becomes all the more alarming.
And God, I’ve never heard the words ‘daft apeth’ on a stage IN MY LIFE. And MARDY. And that collision of affection and steel and conflict, and an inability to convey emotion in any traditional ‘theatrical’ sense; the people Graham dramatises can’t – and if they could they wouldn’t dream of – profess their love for each other in grand speeches, it’s hard enough for them to talk about politics in cosmic terms, let alone what’s going on in their hearts.
It’s not perfect, the brilliance of Freeman and Greig does have the side-effect of making some of the other acting seem stiff in comparison, and it could possibly do without the projected images of the key moments in British politics over the last 27 years. It felt somewhat superfluous. (And the set broke! Twice! And I don’t think anyone noticed! The magic of the theatre!) But it’s really striking that in 2 hours and 45 minute’s worth of material, there’s not a moment wasted. It’s never filler, damn near every joke lands beautifully.
And it was so nice to not listen to middle class people talk about middle class problems. Just for a change. It puts conversations about the fate of the country and the nature of politics in the voice-boxes of NORTHERNERS. And that’s pretty great, and it’s certainly still a rarity. More please.
Labour of Love is a joyous thing.
Photo by Johan Persson.