This new play on austerity tackles the identity crisis at heart of Labour, but suffers from a similar lack of focusby Serena Kutchinsky / December 10, 2014 / Leave a comment
Is there hope for the Labour party? That is the question around which Jack Thorne’s provocative new play pivots. Focusing on the distinctly unfestive topic of austerity, Thorne, a long-time Labour supporter and award-winning screen and playwright, lays bare the identity crisis at the core of Ed Miliband’s party. It’s a theme which feels more topical than ever in the wake of last week’s Autumn Statement, with Labour’s muddled response implying that if in government they would continue public spending cuts. Budgets still need to be slashed, said the Two Eds, although they promised to wield the knife more compassionately.
The premise of Thorne’s play is simple; a Labour council in an unnamed working-class town has to make a budget saving of £22m. The choices facing the town’s motley collection of councillors are stark—there’s a cap on tax, the urban farm has shut and it’s now a toss up between slashing care for the elderly, the young or the disabled. Where will the axe fall and, will pragmatism triumph over principle and emotion?
While the subject matter might sound weighty and somewhat wonkish (aren’t real life politicians bad enough?), Thorne’s playful humour and John Tiffany’s dreamy direction cut through the gloom. There’s even a romantic subplot between the council’s beleaguered deputy leader, Mark, and idealistic newbie Julie. Still, Mother Goose this is not.
“I’m the bah humbug of playwrights,” says Thorne, who once served as Labour councillor in Luton. “The first play I ever did was also at Christmas, it was called When You Cure Me and was about a girl who was paralysed from the waist down after being raped. That wasn’t very cheery either. But, I do hope the audience will find elements of hope amid the depression in this play.”
This is clearly an intensely personal project for Thorne, who joined the Labour party aged 18 in the “shittest act of rebellion” after his mother became disillusioned with the New Labour regime. It’s not the first time Thorne has put his love affair with Labour in the spotlight. He scored a moderate theatrical hit five years ago with 2 May 1997, which focused on the historic night Blair and co swept to victory.
“I am exposing more of myself in this play,” says Thorne thoughtfully. “My confusion is something I think others share. As a Labour party supporter, I don’t know what to do. I want to do something. I want to figure out what that something is. I find watching [the play] excruciating despite the actors being amazing.”
That corrosive sense of confusion pervades the narrative, leaving the audience with a distinct sense of unease. While it puts us inside the troubled political mind of the playwright, it doesn’t always make for pleasant viewing. There’s an uncertainty about Thorne’s, technically excellent, writing—is this play a call to arms, a polemic or a sad farewell to working class solidarity?
“There was a story to be told about the pain that local authorities are going through,” states Thorne. “About the contradiction inherent in a Labour councillor being responsible for making these cuts. I don’t want the play to harangue the audience, rather I want it to spark debate about what the Labour party stands for.”
Despite the well-designed set, which conjures the municipal aesthetic of local government with wood panels and high, dusty windows, the production feels slightly claustrophobic. Too many characters and ideas are crammed into just over two hours. Aside from the careworn but still caring Mark, expertly played by The Thick of It actor Paul Higgins (Malcolm Tucker’s sidekick), and his insecure yet arrogant offspring Jake (Tommy Knight is one to watch), the rest of the characters are little more than well-sketched caricatures. Stella Gonet is impressive but icy as Hillary, the council leader who preaches a doctrine of defeatism to numb her pain over her mother’s dementia. Tom Georgeson breathes life into George, a relic of old Labour who smokes weed and mourns socialism, while Down’s syndrome actress Jo Eastwood is the human face of the cuts. All turn in excellent performances, but there is little for the audience to emotionally connect with.
“Jake is me in many ways,” says Thorne. “There’s always a ‘Jake’ in my plays. The annoying, over-articulate little shit. In the play’s closing scene he provides a final note of optimism.”
The scene Thorne references is a touching encounter between Georgeson’s old timer and Jake, where they sit on a strangely sun-soaked bench and discuss Great Expectations.
“You’ll never have it as good I did,” sighs George. Jake disagrees: “It’s possible I will have a better life than you. It’s possible the world will be better. Just so you know.”
Hope itself would work better, and its muddled message possibly become clearer, if the political tale was more effectively humanised. If there were more moments like the emotive closing two-hander. So far in his career, Thorne has won more acclaim for his TV work, sharing a Bafta with Shane Meadows for This is England ’88, and receiving rave reviews for the E4 original drama series Glue. His desire to write a defining original stage play is clear, as is his passion for his subject, yet somehow I don’t think Hope will be it. Just like the Labour party, it lacks definition.