Lyttelton, National Theatre – until 31 January 2018
Political theatre can be my absolute favourite thing. I am interested in politics, I am interested in theatre, what’s not to like? When political theatre is done badly though, it is pretty much the worst thing in the world. I exaggerate slightly, but you take my point.
A particular strand in political theatre at the moment is Labour Party theatre, a sub-genre which I also rather enjoy. Labour psychodrama is, after all, much more unpredictably entertaining than the Tories (there are only so many plays you can write about awful policies, sleaze and men shagging their secretaries). The latest entry in this ever-growing canon is I’m Not Running, a new Labour – New Labour? – play by one of the daddies of political theatre, and lefty political theatre in particular, David Hare. Sounds good right? There’s so much material around for him to work with at the moment. Yeah, don’t hold your breath.
I’ve said it before, but the worst thing a play can be for me is boring. And I’m Not Running is hands down the most boring thing I’ve seen this year – and possibly longer. It’s Allelujah, but without the occasional amusing Yorkshire joke. It sings from exactly the same hymn sheet: politicians are bad, the NHS is great, change is bad yadda yadda yadda. It’s only addition is the equally groundbreaking observation that the Labour Party is kind of a huge mess. None of this is new, or news, and none of it is interesting. I don’t think I spotted one original thought anywhere in the clunkingly dull script.
Because this is the second problem with I’m Not Running: as well as having nothing to say, it says it so badly. Scenes are endless, which deadens any impact the back and forth in time structure might have had. The plotting is an exercise in convenient and implausible coincidences in which very little actually happens. The characters are either terrible people (I would not vote for any party led by either of the two apparent contenders) or blatant plot devices. The weird, slightly removed from reality but not quite enough, setting is confusing. The jokes aren’t funny. The pace is glacial. My friend fell asleep in act two – I was so jealous – and woke up to find a character had randomly died. He leaned over to ask me if she’d been bored to death, and really that just about sums it up.
The production is a little better than its text. Neil Armfield’s direction needs to do more to move things along and stop the play feeling like one of those never ending phone calls that you can’t end. Ralph Myers’ self consciously theatrical set is eye catching, though the visual metaphor is a bit heavy handed (POLITICS IS ALL A CONSTRUCT). The speed with which the set revolves to allow scene changes is a bit excruciating too, though the effect is, eventually, quite clever. The use of video projection to cover these bits is well done. The pre-recorded interviews with the various characters, where the off screen interviewers are voiced by actors including Bill Nighy and Indira Varma, are arguably the play’s strongest moments.
It’s difficult with plays like this to meaningfully critique the acting. After all, actors can only work with what they’re given and really no one is well served here. As lead character Pauline, Sian Brooke is, for me, not a strong lead. She lacks a bit of the presence the part needs. Alex Hassell is particularly poorly served by his character (the Evil Politician, Jack Gould) but does better with what he’s given, and does at least raise a few laughs. Liza Sadovy is underused and far more compelling as Pauline’s mess of a mother (the one character who is actually well written and quite interesting so naturally she only features in one, relatively short, scene). The ray of light is Joshua McGuire as sunny, neurotic press officer Sandy. His performance is so light and charismatic that it becomes a blessed relief amongst the drudgery. I missed him a lot in the scenes he wasn’t in.
I’m Not Running is, for my money, the sort of political theatre that gives both politics and theatre a bad name. However, my entirely scientific poll of the four people I know who’ve seen it does suggest it has an appreciative audience: people who are like really fucking interested in the internal manoeuvrings of the Labour Party. If that’s you then fill your boots. Not you? Take those boots, put them on and run away.
I’m Not Running is at the Lyttelton Theatre at the NT until 31st January.
I paid £32 (100% not worth it) to sit in H31 in the circle for this one.