As he has done several times during his distinguished career, David Hare, in his 17th play for the National Theatre, takes a thermometer to politicians in general and Labour politics in particular. The reading turns out to have fluctuated hardly at all despite the many changes Labour has undergone since it was last in power.
Though the play opens in 2018, the closest we get to the “C” word is Corby, a town in Northamptonshire, whose beleaguered hospital is fighting for its existence, while Brexit is a concept waiting in the wings. Waving a flag for Corby (not Corbyn) and providing the play with its momentum (rather than Momentum) is Pauline Gibson (Siân Brooke), who, after successfully campaigning to keep Corby’s long-standing hospital open (and presumably a few other endangered hospitals as well), not only becomes a champion of the NHS, but wins a by-election, successfully stands as an independent MP and joins the Labour party.
Rumours follow soon after that she might even put herself up for party leadership. Yet when the play begins, her efficient spin-doctor Sandy (Joshua McGuire) assures a group of reporters that she has no such ambitions, insisting that she won’t be running. Well, you don’t have to be Nostradamus to know that this will, of course, change.
Scene Two flashes back to 1997 (a good year for Labour). Pauline, now a medical student living in digs in Newcastle, has formed an intense, albeit fraught relationship with Jack Gould (Alex Hassell), a personable law student with whom she is clearly in love but whom, for a variety of reasons and conflicting ideologies, she decides to dump. But even though she unceremoniously heaves him out of her bed, she cannot heave him out of her life. As the play unfurls, their paths crisscross to a point where they find themselves in a party leadership shoot-out.
So much for the plot, which Hare uses as a fulcrum to pose certain questions. For example, has Pauline – whose political claim to fame has rested on the single issue of saving old hospitals from the wrecking ball – acquired sufficient experience to take on the murky machinations of politicians more interested in helping themselves than helping others? How will she cope with a party that has never endorsed a female leader?
On a more abstract level, Hare still seems to be wrestling with the problem of just what Labour stands for today. Does the party still value ideologies over actual votes? What are the differences, if any, in Labour’s manifesto since Blair’s landslide victory? Also mentioned en passant is female genital mutilation as well as aspects of feminism. Lots of questions posited, few answered with any real conviction.
Hare’s ear for dialogue is as sharp as ever, and the anguished, often bitter exchanges between Pauline and Jack, both as young lovers and then middle-aged opponents, crackle with intensity and tell us everything we need to know about their very different backgrounds and upbringings.
I was less convinced, though, by the superfluous scene between Pauline and her alcoholic school-teacher mother (a dishevelled Liza Sadovy). It doesn’t advance the play and only reiterates everything we’ve already been told. I had problems too with the character of Meredith Ikeji (Amaka Okafor), a Westminster employee whose parents are immigrants with menial jobs and who has always had a crisis of confidence being a woman in a man’s world. As soon as she’s had her say, Hare unconvincingly uses shock tactics to get rid of her.
What worried me most about the play, though, was the void in which it all exists. It’s set in the present, but never references Brexit, Corbyn, Trump or any of the issues currently confronting the Labour party. You will search in vain for a mobile phone, an iPad or any other contraption by which the present is defined. There are echoes of Graham James’ recent play Labour of Love, and Jack Gould’s campaign to close hospitals echoes a character attached to the Ministry of Health in Alan Bennett’s even more recent Allelujah!
I would also like to know a bit more about Pauline’s private life. Apart from her unhappy relationship with her dysfunctional parents and her car crash of an affair with Jack, we actually know very little about her. Brooke, whose voice is occasionally on the shrill side, does what she can to provide a more three-dimensional heroine, and all her scenes with Jack work well. The essentials are there, but not the details. Hassell morphs well from infatuated student into Pauline’s unwavering political counterpart, and as Pauline’s gay spin-doctor, McGuire, with very little to work with and absolutely no backstory to call on, does the most with the least.
Keeping it all on the move (literally) is Ralph Myers’ rather austere revolving set. And director Neil Armfield generally succeeds in trying to impose on it a satisfying structure. What he cannot do, though, is convince us that for nearly three hours what we’ve been watching is an important, meaningful, up-to-date play for today.