The Theatreguide.London Review
Noel Coward Theatre Autumn 2017
If you know a whole lot about the recent history of the Labour Party, and if you care a whole lot about the recent history of the Labour Party, you will find a whole lot to interest and amuse you in James Graham's new play.
And if you don't, or don't, you'll still find much to entertain you but have the general feeling that every third or fourth line is a political reference or in-joke you're not getting.
Labour OF Love is essentially about the in-house debate between Old Labour, passionately socialist and committed to radical change to benefit the underprivileged, and New Labour, aware that the country is inherently conservative and that the party must move (or appear to move) more toward the centre to win voters and achieve even part of its goals.
We begin in the constituency office of a Labour MP for a decaying northern town on the night of the most recent election. He has somehow managed to lose his safe seat after 27 years, and is moved to reminisce and re-evaluate.
We then move backwards in time, pausing at each previous election night (each time period indicated by some TV clips and quick changes of costumes and wigs), and then move forward again, filling in some of the gaps on the way to the present and the question of what he will do now.
Along the way he keeps up a running debate with his office/campaign manager, she representing the purist line, he the more pragmatic one.
(There are also the even more old-left town councillor who hates the apostate MP even more than the Tories; the MP's wife, who has no interest in politics or public service beyond dreaming of a fast track to 10 Downing Street; and a local voter who over the years finds herself drawn into the political world.)
The debate between the two central characters is good and fairly presented, playwright Graham allowing each side to make its case well, so that even if the internal philosophising of the Labour Party is not of burning interest to you, you will understand the issues and feel how much they matter to the characters.
And even if some of the jokes and references go over your head, the consistently sharp-edged dialogue contains enough incidental wit ('I don't understand you' – 'I'm like the Daily Mail, unreadable') to keep you happy.
Martin Freeman plays the MP as Doctor Watson, convincing us of the man's intelligence and goodness while finding different ways to suggest that, rightly or wrongly, he always feels a half-step behind everyone else.
Tamsin Greig's signature ability to convey, seemingly without effort, that her character is smarter than everyone else and knows it, and her mastery of the thrown-away zinger, make the aide both formidable and irresistible.
And she even handles the cliche the playwright dumps on her, of obviously being in love with her boss, with subtle underplaying.
So,with his character slightly afraid of hers and hers confused by her feelings for him, the two actors play off each other very attractively.
In general the personal stories – that unacknowledged romance, the MP's collapsing marriage, the local leftie's resentment – aren't particularly well integrated into the political debate, and the very talky play inevitably drags through some of its just under three hours.
Director Jeremy Herrin might have served his playwright (and audience) better by being a little less respectful and trimming the occasionally circular and repetitive text.
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