I’m Not Running review: David Hare’s new National Theatre play tiptoes around the Labour Party ★★★

Siân Brooke swaps Sherlock for politics, playing an idealistic MP who may or may not be running for the Labour leadership

Siân Brooke and Alex Hassell in I'm Not Running at the National Theatre by David Hare
Director
Neil Armfield
Set Designer
Ralph Myers
Costume Designer
Sussie Juhlin-Wallen
Lighting Designer
Jon Clark

Photo by Mark Douet

From the outset, I’m Not Running, a new play from David Hare – his 17th for the National Theatre – confuses.

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Is it political satire? Domestic drama? It attempts both, but neither successfully; it’s somehow both full of stuff and lacking in substance.

The play centres on Pauline Gibson (Sherlock’s Siân Brooke), a single-issue, independent MP who may or may not be running to be leader of the Labour Party. It’s set in the present – filling in Pauline’s past through flashbacks – but there’s little reference to the current political reality: there’s no mention of Corbyn, or Brexit. It’s not clear which party is in power. The action, then, feels unmoored, too theoretical: Pauline, in particular, is made of too much theory, all rigid principles, not enough heart.

Though clearly intended to be a complex, intellectual, single-minded woman, Pauline is deeply unconvincing, even implausible. Brooke can be captivating, and does her best to find depth in Pauline, but the resulting performance is uneven and affected, especially compared to her co-stars.

Alex Hassell – as Jack Gould, Pauline’s university boyfriend-turned-political rival – finds the humour she sorely lacks, even though he is just as objectionable: entitled, self-regarding, dogmatic. But while Pauline’s most heated moments come when her ideology is challenged, Jack’s come when his feelings have been hurt, which is altogether more human, and more appealing.

Joshua McGuire (Lovesick, The Hour) brings ease and warmth to Pauline’s right-hand man Sandy, disdainful and exasperated when facing a baying press pack, equal parts indulgent and firm with Pauline. Amaka Okafor as Jack’s young assistant is also very watchable, despite the sense that her character is little more than a means to meld the personal and political in a jarring second-act twist.

It’s a moment of high drama in an otherwise meandering play, which sees the central thread – whether Pauline will make a leadership bid – diverge to include mediations on feminism, the beleaguered NHS, female genital mutilation, sexual consent, alcoholism, immigration, domestic violence.

In contrast to this abundance, the set is sparse: a single two-walled room that the action sometimes spills out of, a device that could have been used more to fill the empty space on stage.

The best scene in Neil Armfield’s production is in the pacier second act, as Jack and Pauline confront each other – their real selves, not just their respective political stances. Full of a vivid rawness, it showcases the considerable talent of the leads, as well as the dramatic skill of Hare. If only the rest of the play had done the same.

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I’m Not Running is currently on at the National Theatre’s Lyttelton until 31st January 2019. Tickets can be purchased here.