FringeReview UK 2018
Directed by Neil Armfield. Ralph Myers’ L-shaped revolve reveals external and internal neutral eggshell walls. Jon Clark’s lighting is discreet and variously naturalistic. Jon Driscoll’s projection looks Newsnight-neat but against black. Paul Arditti’s sound system tannoys the whole space. Alan John’s music similarly ghosts past. Sussie Juhlin-Wallén’s costumes ensure Gibson morphs from forty-one to eighteen and everything in between.
It’s not just as if the last three years never happened, to Labour or the country. In a play shrewdly pulling free of Corbyn and Brexit, the son of a famous intellectual is running for leadership; against not a pesky brother but still, he fears, an intimate: an on-off lover of over twenty years. Though it’s Sian Brooke’s Pauline Gibson who’s virtually never off-stage.
David Hare’s latest work cannily peels back from topical head-banging to perennials. There’s creaky Labour misogyny, the NHS, traditional socialism vs. New Labour; single-issue vs. Party vision. Which is easy since we zig-zag 1996-2018, so much is set in the spin era. Directed by Neil Armfield with a strong grasp of this cut-up story-boarding, there’s an otherwise solid Hare-reined realism. We know the territory.
I’m Not Running puns on bids and a pair of heels. Gibson’s tag-line is defined in the first scene, third person by faithful press agent Sandy Mynott (Joshua McGuire): she’s not running for the Labour leadership. Which seems foregone since Gibson’s an independent, one of those doctors who defy a local NHS hospital closure, getting elected through the ‘Kidderminster Effect’, Westminster Bubble’s term for such anomalies. Except Gibson’s re-elected. ..
We spool back and so does the set within a set, Ralph Myers’ L-shaped revolve revealing external and internal neutral eggshell walls. Light stencils a place and date at the start of scenes (Jon Clark’s lighting discreet and variously naturalistic). The interior’s a student digs, pristine or neatly lived-in home or Westminster office, dishevelled bedroom in Hastings in 1996. Sussie Juhlin-Wallén’s costumes are striking for the way in which Gibson morphs from forty-one to eighteen and everything in between.
Much of the Lyttelton’s used sparingly too, concentrating on the lit-up box. It’s perfect for this type of Hare play which might thrive in a smaller theatre. Though starting with the screech of microphones and flashes, Paul Arditti’s sound system only tannoys the whole space where ensemble members fire questions almost from the wings. It happens three times. Alan John’s music similarly ghosts past. And then there’s the beautifully coiffeured TV interviews projected of three people at different times, pre-recorded using the revolving L like a giant Rubik cube. Jon Driscoll’s projection looks Newsnight-neat but against black.
1997: In a Newcastle Uni digs Gibson and lover Jack Gould (Alex Hassell) tiff over Gibson’s student doctor hours that morphs into breakup. As accusations peel off Gibson detects anger, hostility in Gould’s lovemaking. He’s resentful of her: ‘winning arguments isn’t the same as being right.’ Gibson complains Gould’s gone from ‘being much the most attractive man around. After a few months with me, you’re among the least.’ Hassell gives off a chiselled moodiness making you believe this; it’s later you begin to question any recurrent spark.
It’s a core gripe that spins past their going separate ways as insider party-royalty Gould lands softly in the party machine whilst Gibson qualifies as a doctor and by thirty-two in 2009 is taking risks with an unwarranted tracheotomy.
Brigid Zengeni’s senior Nerena Trent upbraids her for it. Yes it worked but… Zengeni’s small role is the only one that challenges Gibson, Zengeni navigating between professional wrist-slapping and warm regard.
The tracheotomy’s on Sandy Mynott. Gibson guiltily looks in and their platonic symbiosis begins. Trent’s started trying to save Corby hospital, but Gibson’s evidence-based argument-winning pushes her to spearhead, finding herself at Gould’s house emerging from the bedroom – despite his oh-so-happy perfect marriage. She’d only wanted her old and new lover to sign a petition! He won’t. He designed the cuts. And Gibson’s propelled to Westminster.
By now it’s clear that Brooke’s never offstage. Within a contained reasonableness she gives off purring assurance (as does Hassell) in her TV interview, stressed doctor mode, cheerful public face when cornered by an Oxford researcher, and intimate moments with McGuire’s equally warm, exasperated Mynott – the one person whom she can rely on. But Brooke shows Gibson’s survival mode, a containment that even intimately, never gives herself entirely. We partly find out why.
It’s difficult to see quite how Gibson’s attracted to Gould, since Hare’s loaded everything so far against Gould – even the name suggests Philip Gould from the 1980s. Still, there’s smart evasive dialogue here and it’s compelling. Hassell makes as much as anyone can from his ungrateful carapace of an MP/ Brooke here morphs from languidly post-coital to blazingly angry.
Hare’s fascinated by the single-issue politics of the noughties breaking up overarching political narratives till recently. That’s because the latter were often seen as manila envelopes. The challenge faced by I’m Not Running is that it pits yesterday’s single-issues with more urgent ones still dogging the newly riven consensus. Thus would matter less if Hare addressed it dramatically instead of letting it fall as a harangue from Gould in one of the two great scenes of the play.
There’s never a conflict arising from Gibson’s morphing from NHS saviour to widely tipped potential leader. It’s as if she’s Caroline Lucas without a party though without Lucas’ holistic vision – which could indeed see her adopted by Labour were circumstances different. Gibson’s not challenged to widen her brief, nor test her NHS-saving purity with pragmatic trimming.
Hare’s literally boxed himself in. Perhaps Mynott’s character could have challenged Gibson. But Hare’s decided in the second act on a course that means there’s no time and we’re embarked on mainly human confrontations.
Since Hare’s written about Glyndebourne it’s less odd to recall a late Strauss opera, Die Liebe der Danae. The third act is dramatically redundant, yes unlike the first two contains wonderful music. Hare’s dramatically better than that, but the second act is where it grips.
Oxford graduate researcher Merdeith Ikeji (Amaka Okafor) grows in stature during a visit Gibson makes to Gould’s Westminster office (Gould’s absent). Missing Gould, Gibson and Ikeji discover a glowing friendliness with an unexpected outcome.
There’s a riveting performance though from Liza Sadovy as Blaise Gibson, Pauline’s hippyish, alcoholic fifty-year-old mother in 1996, as the daughter’s upbraided for arriving back from Europe – to clear away vodka bottles in black sacks, sniff what’s clean or dirty clothing. Sadovy’s gravelly authority cuts through, a dark hopeless wisdom suffuses her warnings. ‘Stop fighting your own character’ Blaise tells her daughter. ‘I’d walk out the door and start again.’ There’s reasons, and we know the daughter won’t. Recriminations and reveals make this climactic – the thing Hare sustains throughout Skylight. Dramatically you could detach it; but this works gains its soul’s ransom here.
The penultimate scene after a traumatic event pitches Gould and Gibson with the latter finally giving some news. Hassell’s superb at revealing a rasp of misogyny. But he also fairly puts the devotion of what the Party stands for against Gibson’s ‘glamour’. Ultimately – and this is Hare’s point – ‘The Labour Party’s not interested in votes. It’s not interested in popularity. It’s interested in process. It’s interested in internal procedure.’ When the laughter’s died down, and a sense that this might have applied a decade ago, you look back at the summer and think again.
One just wishes we could have seen Gibson rub up against some of that process; that’s a different play. Brooke inhabits the part with such absorption, such flickers of Gibson’s insecurities, as to make her real. With a strong cast she persuades you that Gibson’s one of Hare’s great characters, one that might yet foreshadow a woman leading Labour too. Despite echoing the opening in the finale though, we’ve not squared the circle, but managed it in circuits and bumps. Still a compelling dissection of what hampers the mindset of our main progressive party.