James Graham tells Richard Angell and Conor Pope why his new play Labour of Love is set in a ‘grotty’ constituency Labour party office
Even in the final weeks of summer, an election poster still remains up in a window a few doors down from the London rehearsal room where Labour of Love, the new play from Britain’s eminent political playwright James Graham, is being prepared. Each day, the cast members will walk past the words ‘Vote Neil Coyle’, despite the general election now being months past. It is a small reminder that Westminster party politics feels like it has a larger cultural relevance than at any point in years.
Graham’s recent success may be a product of this new mood. He has written ‘somewhere between’ 15 and 20 plays, several of them overtly political, but it is This House that has been his smash hit. The drama about the Conservative and Labour whips’ offices during the finely-balanced parliaments of the 1970s drew unexpected critical and commercial acclaim. Starting at the National Theatre in 2012, it moved to London’s West End, and was featured as a live cinema broadcast as far away as New York and Sydney.
Labour of Love, however, tightens its scope even further. ‘It’s meant to be a commercial play about the Labour party, which isn’t confirmed to get a popular audience’, Graham freely admits.
Set over the course of three decades, it follows the career of David Lyons, a fictional, modernising Labour member of parliament elected to a north Midlands heartland seat in a 1990 byelection when Neil Kinnock is opposition leader to prime minister Margaret Thatcher. The play, though, is set entirely in Lyons’ constituency, and portrays his difficulty getting some local members, including his own election agent, on board with the party’s modernisation agenda through the 1990s, before the tide of politics appears to turn against him. ‘The play covers a 27 year cycle [of Labour politics]… It begins in 1990 with Kinnock, and it ends in the election in 2017 with [Jeremy] Corbyn.’
On a practical level, Graham explains to us the surreal feeling of working with actors as renowned as co-stars Martin Freeman, of Sherlock and The Hobbit fame, and Sarah Lancashire, from BBC drama Happy Valley, to try and help them capture the subtleties of the north Nottinghamshire accent. ‘It’s a strange mix of the north and Midlands. It’s got this hard “o”, Graham says, before giving us a taste: ‘Like in “go ‘ome!”’
It is telling that he should use that phrase as an example. Not because he subscribes to any crass caricature of these people in heavily ‘Leave’ areas as the kind of racists you might find shouting that on the street – he is both too astute and holds too positive a view of the place for that – but because the idea of this ‘home’ seems quite central to the text.
Graham, in his mid-30s, is from Ashfield, though now lives in London, after studying drama at the University of Hull. He says he is from a ‘working-class community’: ‘I would never say I’m working-class. I think people would just say, “No you’re not, you’ve got two plays on the West End, fuck off.”’ That might be a feeling the main character Lyons recognises: having left his hometown and returning only to represent it in parliament, some elements of his local party now treat him with ‘suspicion’.
The setting is, Graham believes, crucially important to the content. The play is set in an unnamed north Nottinghamshire constituency, that seems to resemble both Ashfield and neighbouring Mansfield – leaving one to wonder, knowing the play’s timeline finishes with the 8 June 2017 election, what will happen to Lyons, the incumbent Labour MP, in the end. Does he hold on, like Gloria De Piero, or see his majority disappear like Alan Meale?
Graham was struck, 10 years ago, by watching Tony Blair standing down as prime minister while simultaneously announcing that he was leaving parliament. The scene for this momentous press conference was Trimdon Labour club. Blair’s introduction was made by a local party apparatchik, and the the first thing the prime minister did in his speech was thank ‘Maureen’, a stalwart of Sedgefield Labour party, for providing such a warm reception.
Graham loved the idea that this person was being broadcast to the world; that parochial politics was suddenly global. ‘Tony Blair’s resignation was being beamed around the world and in rolling news they were forced to watch this constituency agent, or election agent, talk about the local politics and what was coming up on the local party agenda … I loved that, that juxtaposition.’
It is something he has picked up from visiting various constituency Labour party offices, which can often be reduced to an archetype. The people you find in them, he says, ‘don’t pretend it’s anything other than a bit grotty, disorganised and messy … It’s a thrilling idea to put that on the glamorous stage of a West End play.’
Look a little closer and you will find the humour in the familiar surroundings: ‘There’s a pebbledash exterior, and if you go upstairs there’s a room with a bath in it that no one has ever had a bath in, so it’s just got boxes in it. I love it.’ It uncovers, he says, ‘a side most people don’t get to see, but is where the majority of politics happens.’
That setting, Graham believes, is perfect for staging farce. Yet that does not mean that Labour of Love is home to slapstick characters. ‘The style is naturalistic, it’s realistic, the characters should feel fully-rounded and their motivations feel earned. But the nature of that environment and the nature of local politics on a constituency level naturally lends itself to a certain farcical, heightened ridiculousness.’
This idea of contending elements really is the basis of the play. It is not just the setting versus content, though. It is, at its core, about political and ideological tensions in the Labour party, and how they play out. ‘The characters around David Lyons, the MP, would accuse him of being careerist, too Westminster-focused rather than on his constituency. The MP would argue against that … he is Labour, he feels Labour to his core passionately and emotionally. His ambitions for the party and his ambitions for power are all about the community, and fixing things that they could not fix during the 18 years of opposition … He would reject that being on that side of the party is careerist.’
‘Sarah [Lancashire]’s character represents a more localist view of politics. She’s definitely more to the left than David [Lyons]… We have another character who is secretary of the CLP, I would say he absolutely fits into the Bennite, Corbyn, possibly even previously the Militant wing of the labour movement, and defines himself in opposition to David’s politics. The story of Sarah’s character, as a constituency agent, having to both support and work for her MP but make sure the constituency is constantly kept happy, is that tug between the two.’
Through these internal Labour battles, the play appears to explore some of those other tensions apparent in society. ‘Everyone thinks where they are from is special, unique and nuanced. But for me north Nottinghamshire is that, particularly for the left and the labour movement because it has this historical tension. In the miners’ strike, 10 minutes north from Ashfield in Yorkshire, everybody struck. And 20 minutes south of Ashfield in Nottinghamshire they broke off from their union and went back to work. That tension between left, right, striking, non-striking: it feels like it’s constantly been having a conversation with itself about
‘Although it’s a working-class, industrial place, it’s not cleanly left. There are working-class Tories in this town. Mansfield, just next door, was one of the only seats to go Conservative in this election … it feels constantly in flux. So to set this existential crisis play in a place that has always felt like it has its own identity crisis – is it northern, is it Midlands, is it working-class? – feels poetically helpful.’
Reality did not quite provide the political background Graham expected – having started writing it earlier this year, ‘the actual outcome [of the general election] was the most damaging to the play it could have been’, he reveals. ‘It meant the whole premise behind the play had to slightly shift. It wasn’t that I had to rewrite the end scene, or the first scene, or the middle scene, it was the reason for the play existing had slightly shifted. What I thought we would be going through now was a bigger autopsy of the party.’
However, he recognises that it does not mean the tensions within the party have vanished, and appears to pick up on various divides that in politics we constantly flit between – whether they be the ‘somewheres versus anywheres’, cities versus towns, or liberals versus ‘postliberals’ – and approaches it with fresher eyes and a different vocabulary. While Labour may have put some of these questions on the backburner for now, this ‘existential crisis play’ has not.
Labour of Love will be staged at the Noel Coward Theatre, London, between 15 September and 2 December