Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
The title of David Hare’s new play (the 17thto be presented at the National) is laden with multiple meanings. There’s the literal one, of course: the central character is Siân Brooke’s Pauline Gibson, who as a popular independent MP is rumoured to be joining the Labour Party and making a leadership bid.
And then there’s the figurative title. Gibson has been running from something her whole life – the father who regularly abused her mother; the mother who, by the start of the play, is a bed-ridden alcoholic with cancer; the student boyfriend with connections in the party who, in the present, would be her biggest rival for leader.
Yet amongst the potential offered by that second reading, it’s the first, literal version of the title which is the more interesting, despite Hare’s best efforts to derail himself. Flitting between time periods – from the present day, to Gibson’s time as a medical student in 1997, to her political awakening when, as a junior doctor, the NHS hospital in which she works is face with closure by a Labour government focussed on ideological efficiency rather than community cohesion.
If Hare was hoping that his flashback sequences would offer a more rounded, more sympathetic portrayal of Gibson, he has failed. Much of what transpires in the turgid 1997 sequence which dominates the first half of Act I merely demonstrates that Brooke’s character is substantially less interesting than that of Jack, her erstwhile boyfriend. A masterfully layered performance by Alex Hassell sees him play a man who, coming from socialist Labour royalty, rises to the top of the party by dint of a career built on carefully crafted mediocrity. Did anybody say ‘Miliband’?
In contrast, Brooke’s performance is opaque and detached. There is little on stage that parallels what we are told about the popularity and charisma of this independent MP, who ascended to parliament on a single issue and is now tipped for great things.
While Act I is enlivened considerably by a comic turn by Joshua McGuire as Gibson’s slyly camp press officer, it is not until after the long-overdue interval that the play gains the pace it needs to retain the interest. A much more illuminating flashback – this time to the bedroom of Gibson’s mother (a blistering Liza Sadovy) – highlights some of the manipulative character traits that her daughter also displays.
But mostly, it is the present day scenes which come anywhere near to stirring the blood. A confrontation between Pauline and Jack as they both step out of a funeral for a cigarette break is the most dynamic scene in the whole play, possibly because by this point Hare no longer feels the need to weigh down the dialogue with inane exposition or clumsily expressed political views. It is personal, and the personal is political in ways that discussions about party election ethics can never be.
Quite what the target for Hare’s supposedly satirical play is, remains unclear. Perhaps the biggest takeaway is a criticism that the Labour Party has yet to have a woman as its permanent leader. But in the context of a play that sets itself in an alternative 2018 where Blair-like politicians still rule the party, and the divisions caused by the ascendancy of the Corbynite wing are blithely ignored, there should be more to say about Labour and party politics.