Noel Coward Theatre, London – until 2 December 2017
A LESSON IN POLITICS, HUMANITY AND LOVE… The joyful thing about James Graham is that for all the playwright’s youth, diamond wit and forensic insight, there is a deep humankindliness in his work. He reads the diaries and histories, researches into some bygone crisis and without haughty authorial judgement, reimagines the human motivations of the principal characters.
He appreciates, as Shakespeare appreciated both Kings and Dogberries, everything that we are: the combative pomposities and earnest principles of MPs in This House, the knackered , boozy workhorse journalists in Ink, the keen election officers of The Vote but also the unpredictable electoral rabble of daftheads and drunks, citizens frivolous or earnest, vague or pompous or angry or just proudly new-fledged , all casting their vote. His keen, wondering eye has enough brotherhood to let actors make his characters live as real people, never cyphers or cartoons. Even while we’re laughing.
And so it is in this chronicle of the Labour Party over a quarter of a century, with newsreel flashes from its older, Attlee history. It is all seen through the focus of a constituency office in a bricky, scruffy street somewhere in Yorkshire, with a gentle, unconventional and very slow-burning love story threaded through it between Martin Freeman as the MP and Tamsin Greig as the former MP’s wife who grumpily agrees to be his constituency agent. Told first in reverse from today to 1990, then forward again in the second part, with some quite brilliant costume and wig changes to rejuvenate and re-age the pair in jumps covered by projected news, it is probably the fairest vision of life from Foot to Blair to Corbyn than anything we will to get in print. And it is , though touching and at times eagerly serious about social justice, tremendously funny.
I am over a week late with this one, such has been the disarray of press nights and family life, and much has been said about it already. So beyond that reflection on Graham himself, only brief observations. First, the absolute glory of Tamsin Greig as the agent – tough, devastating in putdowns and dryly dismissive Yorkshire jokes; an OU graduate, mother of five, a toughly demanding democratic socialist and working-class warrior set against the Blairy “social democrat” progressivism of the MP. Freeman is pretty fabulous too, moving between puppyish enthusiasm, furious frustration and real sorrow for his constituents.
Episodically skilful, it warms and enlightens, gradually the hard political compromises growing clearer. Labour’s cultural gulf is slyly expressed in the person of the MP’s wife, xxx as a fabulously snooty lawyer horrified that her man’s ambition has taken her to hicksville not Westminster. The future is there too in Tamsin Greig’s character : she could be a prototype of Jess Philips, and reminds us that the Jesses – and xxxx s – took time to fight through the sclerotic masculinity of old Labour.
It shines. It makes you hope that Mr Graham is at work on the evolution of the Conservative party over that period too: until you remember that in 2008 for the National Youth Theatre he wrote Tory Boyz about its trouble accepting gay rights. There’s more material there. One can only hope…
box office 0844 482 5140 to 2 Dec http://www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk