Life and soul of a party
Enjoys timely romp through 30 years of the Labour Party’s ups and downs a
British politics may be facing a winter of multifarious discontents, but James Graham is enjoying a glorious summer of play writing renown and success. As of this week, the 35-year-old is the toast of theatreland. Labour of Love, his anatomy of the Labour Party (taking in some 30 years of history in 150 minutes), has opened a hop, skip and a jump up St Martin’s Lane from Ink, his superb, Almeidapremiered hit about the early days of Murdoch and The Sun.
In terms of commercial clout, he’s technically eclipsed by Jack Thorne, sitting pretty with Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. But following his National Theatre and then West End breakthrough with This House, Graham’s position is now unassailable as the go-to-guy for bankable dramas about our body politic.
When he first emerged little more than 10 years ago, on the London fringe, during the relatively stableseeming days of New Labour, he looked to be carving out a valuable, if unfashionable, niche, examining the back stories of 20th century PMs: Eden, Heath, Thatcher. That instinct for an intellectual gap in the market has paid rich dividends as our need to understand the run-up to and fallout from Thatcherism has increased post-crash. He started off looking like theatre’s answer to the social historian Dominic Sandbrook, and has wound up almost seizing the mantle of Sir David Hare.
Hare, who gave us a defining portrait of Labour under Kinnock in The Absence of War (1993), was quoted recently as suggesting that Labour of Love runs the risk of looking too “reactive”: “That’s what I call ‘chasing the dust cart’.” And in broad terms, the flaw of the piece is indeed that even as it examines the rise and fall of the centrist project in Labour, it cannot hope to answer fully the question on everyone’s lips at the moment: namely how the hard Left resurgence – under Corbyn – has seemingly made itself electable.
By Graham’s own admission he had a lot of rewriting to do as the June 8 election results came in, given the assumptions about Jez’s chances. What’s striking all the same, given the confused state of play, is how coherent his response is. With deftness, wit and a stirring amount of romantic love, the evening gets to the heart of the ideological rifts and tiffs that have beset Labour since its red rose clutching fight-back against the Thatcher supremacy.
It’s back to the seismic resignation of Mrs T in 1990 that the first half rewinds, beginning on election night 2017 and moving past the coalition years, the 2001 election and the 1994 Labour leadership campaign. Accompanying between-scenes footage in Jeremy Herrin’s smartly paced production supplies surprisingly nostalgia-inducing context of Teflon Tony et al in their prime.
Political skirmishes of the past and present are revisited through one location and an intertwining personal thread. We’re in the North Nottinghamshire constituency office of Labour MP David Lyons – evidently Labour of Love