We’re in a Nottinghamshire constituency office just after the last election. Labour MP David Lyons (Martin Freeman) is about to lose his seat while his election agent and friend Jean Whittaker (Tamsin Greig) helps out by mocking him affectionately.
And so begins James Graham’s epic story of the modern Labour Party told through the prism of this progressive talent (who gives his all for more than two decades before his defenestration in 2017) and his engaging friend and colleague.
Much of the play and the political analysis feels very broad brush – which is perhaps no surprise given the scale of what Graham (a political obsessive behind the brilliant This House) is taking on, as well as the enormous technical challenges of the chronology.
He narrative first travels past the Coalition years and expenses scandal and the 1994 Labour leadership campaign, to Thatcher’s resignation in 1990 before motoring forwards in the second half.
Jean is a former old Labourite who grew up nearby but who gradually warms to David – much to the consternation of her brutish old school socialist husband who not only despises the “Red Tory c***” but may suspect other goings on too.
There’s a whiff of Beatrice and Benedict about David and Jean. But taken separately, though, as a political saga or as an emotional love story it’s a bit Much Ado about not very much and doesn’t always convince; the portrayal of David’s metropolitan lawyer (and ultra New Labour) wife Elizabeth (Rachael Stirling) is a little cartoonish as well.
Where it does succeed though is in imaginatively marrying the political and the personal, and the nostalgic traipse down memory lane (complete with fab music) is enormously enjoyable.
The writer is clearly on the side of this party (though probably the Blairite wing) and you cannot help but think that in David and Jean he is portraying an idealistic marriage of the two warring factions with the party. This is fundamentally an optimistic as well as an honest play.
I also liked the way he cuts backwards and forward – quite a feat of structure this – which gives the strange but fascinating impression of the New Labour moderniser David being strangely old-fashioned – or at least he is in 2017 and a world where Jeremy Corbyn reigns supreme.
These swift scene changes mean Freeman has to have quite a few hair style changes too, many of which mirrors whoever is the Labour leader at the time (whose identity is cleverly signalled by the face that fills the picture frame in the corner of the wall).
The performances, it has to be said, are excellent. Freeman is understated in an affable rumpled sort of way, but raises his passions with skill and judiciousness. Grieg is also an extremely engaging on stage presence and she delivers her many quips with the kind of aplomb and comic timing we have come to expect from this brilliant actress; (and it’s a particular achievement given that she stepped into the shoes of Sarah Lancashire at the last minute).
At nearly three hours it could have been cut a fair bit, though; and while much of this is funny as well as chewily thought-provoking, some pruning of those few jokes that don’t quite hit home would be recommended. In the interests of party unity, of course…
Labour of Love is on at the Noel Coward Theatre until December 2. Tickets: 0844 482 5141
Ben has worked as a professional journalist specialising in TV and the arts for nearly twenty years. After a two year stint on local newspapers in the mid 1990s, he spent more than 5 years as the broadcast reporter at the Stage newspaper. Following that he enjoyed staff reporting positions at the Sunday Mirror and the Sunday Times breaking stories and writing features before settling as a full time freelance writing for an array of newspapers and magazines - but mainly for the Guardian, Evening Standard, Broadcast, Independent and the New Statesman where he wrote a column.