The playwright opens up about Jeremy Corbyn, local politics—and why he's finding it so hard to set a drama in Number 10by Andrew Dickson / September 8, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
The publication of the election exit poll at 10pm on 8th June was a plot twist worthy of the wildest of melodramas. Even by the turbulent standards of current politics, the prospect of a resurgent Jeremy Corbyn denying Theresa May a majority seemed so unlikely that few regarded it as credible. Journalists rushed to delete Labour’s political obituaries; pollsters were, yet again, dumbfounded. Judging by Corbyn’s reaction at his Islington count a few hours later, he was as flabbergasted as anyone.
Spare a thought, then, for James Graham. On election night he was drinking with friends, taking a break from a play he’d been working on for seven years. Labour of Love was supposed to tell the story of 25 years of Labour Party history, from Neil Kinnock’s failure to beat John Major in 1992 to what most people assumed would be an even more calamitous defeat in 2017. Actors had been cast and a theatre booked for the autumn; the script was nearly done. Everyone knew how the saga would pan out. Until, of course, they didn’t.
“I did have an existential crisis moment,” Graham admitted when we spoke recently, looking tortured by the memory. “It wasn’t just a case of having to change the bloody ending; the premise of the play had to shift. Nothing to do with my opinion of Jeremy Corbyn or the direction of the Labour Party, but I just assumed like everybody else that it was going to be an autopsy.” He threw up his hands. “And now we’re in a different world.”
We were talking in a garret room in a West End theatre, on a bright, breezy summer Friday morning. Graham was as full of bounce as ever—if you saw him at Westminster you’d peg him for an eager junior researcher, even at 35—but I detected some recent all-nighters in the lines under his eyes. The play still wasn’t finished, and the actors needed it on Monday. When I asked how much sleep he’d had since the election, he laughed. “How much sleep have any of us had?”
Graham, of all people, should perhaps have had an inkling that May’s supposedly safe bet might not pay out. An eager student of parliamentary history, he shot to prominence with This House (2012), a surprise hit for the National Theatre that retold the fraught and absorbing story of the 1974-79 hung parliament, with its uncanny foreshadowing of 2017. One of his very first works, Eden’s Empire (2006), focused on Anthony Eden, who seemed to all eyes—not least his own—a dead cert, and yet who made a disastrous, career-ending blunder. The Vote (2015) was a comedy of errors set inside a polling station. Few playwrights have gone to such lengths to demonstrate that, far from marking the serene progress of history, British politics most often resembles an out-of-control roller coaster, with public servants clinging on as best they can. Particularly when the electorate is at the levers.