Labour of Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
James Graham seems to be becoming ubiquitous in the West End. Labour of Love is the third of his plays to be performed there this year, after the revival of This House and the transfer from the Almeida of Ink. It’s the newest and most sharply topical too, dramatising years of the Labour party’s history right up to this year’s election. That’s where the play starts, before going back through various episodes in the Miliband and Blair years to the first election of David Lyons (Martin Freeman) as the new centrist MP parachuted into his Nottinghamshire constituency with his snooty wife. He clashes with the local party, and learns to get on with Jean Whittaker (Tamsin Greig), the last MP’s wife who he convinces to stay on as his agent. Their relationship is cleverly managed against the background of party politics as the narrative moves forward again through the second half, bringing us back to the present day. It’s reliably funny, though not necessarily gut-wrenchingly so, and while the emotions are not quite as developed as they could be, the characters are engaging and believable.
Martin Freeman and Tamsin Greig carry the whole show. One would never guess that Greig was a last-minute substitute – Jean’s acerbic wit feels like a perfect fit for her, and she’s gloriously funny. Freeman is by turns staid and ridiculous, and the changes in his character are deftly managed over the back-and-forward structure. The minor characters are carried with varying degrees of success. David’s wife Elizabeth, played by Rachael Stirling, feels both over-written and over-acted. Her sense of superiority quickly grows trying. Dickon Tyrell and Susan Wokoma are much more successful, thoroughly believable as an old left zealot and a young party member.
The production works well and unobtrusively. The entire piece takes place in the same constituency office, with the portrait of the leader on the wall and the technology being the main differences between the time periods. Overall, this is an excellent performance of a very decent new play. The only question is whether Graham’s accomplished but slightly emotionally shallow and rather glib brand of political comedy really deserves all the attention it gets. We all seem to have a desperate appetite for satire of any kind – is the praise for this and his other plays entirely deserved?
Photo: Johan Persson
Labour of Love is at the Noel Coward Theatre from 16th September until 2nd December 2017. Book your tickets here.