James Graham’s Labour of Love showcases our party’s greatest asset – its people, writes Anna Turley
Having heard great things about the play This House, that I had never got the chance to see, I was determined not to miss James Graham’s latest political play Labour of Love – and rushed to get tickets on its second night. I was not disappointed.
It tells the story of the Labour party over the last 25 years with an affection and pride in our movement that at times made the hairs on my arms prickle and my eyes well. Stirring video montage, famous speech excerpts, and a fine, nostalgic soundtrack set alongside the play tell of our ups and downs, our battles and our successes, our governments and our oppositions.The set transports you through this electoral history, with party branding, posters and slogans that take you back election by election – powerful triggers for anyone who feels like their life has been set by those electoral cycles.
Indeed, this whole play was clearly a labour of love for its writer, who treats his subject – the Labour party – with the care and affection of a family member. This is not an objective, clinical dissection of our past but a heartfelt journey told with understanding and familiarity by a wonderful storyteller.
There are important messages implored to the audience here though, with lessons to learn from our past. They are done intelligently and delicately. For example, Graham manages to tackle both New Labour’s eventual disconnect with local members at the same time as setting out a timely reminder that party members can forget that the electorate do not always share their worldview or their ideological zeal. Member of parliament David Lyons gives an illustrative 101 on electability using his agent’s flip chart that nearly had me whooping from my seat and should be a shown at every constituency Labour party.
But the great thing about this play is that the story of our party is not shown through our great figures – famous men and women thumping at dispatch boxes, shouting in conference halls or at rallies. That is just the backdrop. It is shown through our people – for all our flaws, the greatest asset we have in the Labour party. The story is beautifully delivered through Lyons – the committed and passionate young MP played by Labour-supporting Martin Freeman – and his constituency agent and office manager Jean Whittaker, played with wit and verve by Tamsin Greig. For all his weaknesses and career ambitions, the MP for what we are led to believe is Ashfield never falters in his commitment to better the lives of his constituents and Whittaker reminds me of so many people I have met in our party. Those behind the scenes that bind it together and do all the graft, but whom the public never get to see. Committed, hard-working, decent, down to earth, and not afraid to tell the MP how it is. You will all know a party stalwart like her.
Their dynamic is fantastic – sharp, genuine and touching, forged over the years in election battles, policy fall-outs, and the day-to-day of an MP’s constituency office or dealing with the ‘dog shit’, as Whittaker so eloquently reminds us. The set never moves from the constituency office, a place that is paid scant attention by the media or the public when they think about the high drama or important dynamics of politics but which, as this play shows, is really the stage for it all.
It cannot have been easy to have written this play while politics is changing so dramatically, and when things within the party have been so volatile. But Graham manages to stride the political upheaval with ease and creates a clever and elegant ending that leaves you looking forward to Labour’s next chapter. Labour of Love is laugh-out- loud funny, tender and moving. You will leave the theatre proud of our movement and its people, and optimistic for our future.
Anna Turley is member of parliament for Redcar. She tweets at @annaturley
You can read Richard Angell and Conor Pope‘s interview with Labour of Love playwright James Graham here
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