Why was the red rose chosen by Labour as its new symbol during rebranding in the Nineties? “Because it looks pretty but is full of pricks,” quips party faithful Jean, in a play that sugars its analysis of the internal struggles of the Labour Party with an extremely high gag rate.
A red rose is also a symbol of love, of course – and this is a proper feelgood romcom too, a will-they-won’t-they with plenty of swearing and repressed emotions in the very Best of British fashion.
It’s the latest play by James Graham, who made coalition governments entertaining in This House and whose brilliant drama about The Sun, Ink, is playing on the very same West End street. He’s pulled it off again: Labour of Love is vastly enjoyable.
Martin Freeman plays David, a Blairite MP in the East Midlands; Tamsin Greig is Jean, long-time constituency office agent and staunchly leftie old guard. We meet them on the night of the 2017 election, when it looks like David may lose his seat, once considered so safe for Labour a “tub of cottage cheese could win it”. The action rewinds back through his 27 years there, as we see the sparks fly between two sparring figures representing trenchantly different approaches what the Labour Party should be; after the interval, we spool back forward.
But Graham’s writing, brought to life with real warmth and humanity by director Jeremy Herrin, is such that they always seem like people, not positions. Freeman imbues David with an amiable pragmatism but also passion – he’s no cynical, smarmy metropolitan elite, but a local lad done good who genuinely wants to change society, and believes being in power is the best way to do so. Greig – who gives a terrific performance that seems frankly heroic when you realise she also stepped in only two weeks ago, replacing Sarah Lancashire – is a no-nonsense, fiercely loyal hard-liner. The further back we go, and the more polarised they get, the more fun it is – with Greig especially vibrant as a bolshy young woman.
This is a confident, well-crafted evening. The acting is great, the structure is satisfying, both the rom and the com are a bit cheesy – but they work. You root for the opposites to attract, and even if there are very silly bits of business – mixing up cans squirty cream and air freshener – and lightly lame pop culture references – an election wipeout is likened to Game of Thrones – it’s rare that five minutes go past without a proper roar of laughter.
Herrin uses news reels and pop songs to rewind through the years, which ought to be clichéd but actually works superbly well, an emotional roller-coaster that reminds you just how quickly political situations can change, as well as how some issues never seem to get resolved.
One of the most fascinating twists in the tale, of course, comes from circumstances beyond Graham’s control: a heartfelt speech by David about how it’s more important to be in power than to cleave to impossible principles, and that they only way to appeal to voters is to be more centrist, obviously sounds very different following an election that for the first time seemed to vindicate precisely the opposite view.
Labour of Love is not perfect. Some may want more biting analysis. The opening scene stumbled a little (possibly due to Greig still, understandably, finding her feet) and David’s wife, Elizabeth is currently a full caricature: playing an impossibly awful posh lawyer, Rachel Stirling goes way over the top. Elizabeth deserves the same compassion as the rest of the characters and doesn’t get it at the moment.
But there’s much to, well, love in this affectionate, funny, and very human drama, which fully fuses big and small ‘p’ politics to provide one of the most entertaining evenings available in the West End.
‘Labour of Love’ is at the Noel Coward Theatre until 2 December; labouroflovetheplay.co.uk