Just when Americans think we have a monopoly on political rancor, along comes a show from across the pond to remind us that we aren’t the only ones dealing with extreme political partisanship. Remember Brexit? The 2016 referendum, in which Britain voted to leave the EU, is the basis for the new political comedy out of Britain, Labour of Love, which won playwright James Graham the 2018 Olivier Award for Best New Comedy.
In a new production at Olney Theatre Center, directed by Leora Morris, Labour of Love offers a glimpse into current British politics through the character of British MP (Member of Parliament) David Lyons, played by M. Scott McLean. The play begins in 2017 as Prime Minister Theresa May calls for a General Election after the Brexit Vote and the results aren’t good for Lyons, who loses the seat he has held for 27 years.
He loses it in an area that has voted for the Labour Party for decades. The area is working class, and job losses and British support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have caused the working class to look to the now populist Conservative Party, headed by Prime Minister Theresa May.
As the play offers us glimpses into past challenges to the Labour Party, we see that Lyons has faced numerous challenges in the past had somehow managed to hold his seat. Now he has to face defeat and the loss of a way of life he has had for over a quarter of a century. Along for this bumpy ride has been his feisty and bawdy chief of staff and campaign manager, Jean Whittaker (Julia Coffey). She is a lifelong Labour supporter and the wife of the MP who proceeded Lyons. Lyons’ life is further complicated by his wife, Elizabeth (Tessa Klein). Elizabeth has never been supportive of his career and is a thorn in Whittaker’s side.
Act I takes us back to 1990 and the day Lyons wins his first election to parliament. In Act II we go through another time warp, this time traveling from the past to the present, each scene filling in the blanks from Act I.
As Whittaker, Coffey has perfected the idealistic campaign manager, making this sharp-tongued woman extremely likable. Although the play is ostensibly about Lyons, Coffey manages to make Whittaker a key protagonist. And McLean, as Lyons, is a perfect foil for her barbs. He and Coffey get younger and older right before our eyes.
Their scenes together, especially the scene that presents us with their original encounter, are witty and the pacing perfect. Both keep the play moving quickly as we watch these lives, these careers, and this marriage evolve.
Klein does a memorable job as Elizabeth, the undermining wife. It is no wonder that we are happy that this marriage is not working out for either spouse. Her caustic banter with Coffey as Whittaker is magnificently catty.
[Read Olney Theatre Center’s dramaturgical notes by Katie Ciszek for more background on British politics in Labour of Love]
Rounding out the cast are Marcus Kyd as Len Prior, another local Labour Party leader, Emily Kester as Margot Midler, the idealistic assistant to Whittaker, and Brian Kim as Mr. Shen. Kyd shines in the scene where he confronts Lyons with his own ambitions. Kester shows great talent as Margot grows from a fervent teenager to a cynical adult. Kim plays a Chinese businessman that Lyons is trying to woo into investing in his district. He never lets the character fall into a stereotype.
Morris’ directorial decisions are intriguing, and her creative concept makes the show easy to follow even for audience members without precise knowledge of British politics or cultural familiarity with the background characters (Blair, Thatcher, Atlee). She does this along with Scenic Designer Daniel Ettinger. They use videos and projected images both before and during the production. I particularly appreciated the idea of projecting the years as we go back and forth through the decades. (Projection Designer Rasean Davonte Johnson)
A revolving platform allowed the Labour office to go through changes that reflected the timeframe of the show while Sarah Cubbage’s costumes also helped us understand where the characters were in time.
Labour of Love is not just about British politics. It is about the political fallout that occurs in times of extreme partisanship. It is easy to see the parallels to our own recent elections and the polarization of our own population. Labour of Love approaches politics with great humor and insight into the machinations of government and the human psyche. In a show that deals with political losses, Olney Theatre Center has a clear winner.
Running Time: Two Hours and 45 minutes, with one intermission.