FringeReview UK 2019

I’m Not Running

National Theatre, London

Genre: Contemporary, Drama, Mainstream Theatre, New Writing, Political, Theatre

Venue: National Theatre, Lyttelton

Festival:


Low Down

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. Make-up for the video-close-ups of Brooke, Hassel, and Zengeni notably transforms them into politicos.

 

Screen director Robin Lough relishes the chance to sharpen the glossy visuals and PR-positioning as well as zoom quietly on intimacy and conflict. We’re also treated to more of the ensemble shouting questions from the wings. Lighting Director Bernie Davis doesn’t lose the tang of theatre but lets nothing intrude around the stage. Conrad Fletcher’s sound is a discreet envelope, embracing the surround of laughter and applause.

 

Review

  • 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 Labour intellectual is running for leadership; against not a pesky red 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.
  • Nearly four months on from its premiere, there’s an emotional punch to this work that then seemed intermittent. Gibson and the cast now convince you that you’ve seen vintage Hare, nearly up there with say Skylight, not his more undercharged states-of.

 

  • 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 should know the territory.

 

Eight years in the making, though, David Hare’s latest work cannily peels back from topical head-banging to perennials. Or seems to. In 2010 the parallels might have seemed sharper; Alex Hassell’s Labour royalty Jack Gould, glossed up in interviews, uncannily evokes that famous pipped brother. Gibson too conflates ‘the most popular person in Britain’ (guess which woman MP this might be!) and an NHS doctor who won a seat too. Hare proclaims in interview how ahead of the curve he is. To a point.

 

  • 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 in 2015 and 2017…

 

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. Hassell’s hair for instance morphs from student mop to brilliantined helmet. Make-up for video-close-ups of Brooke, Hassell, and Zengeni notably transforms them into politicos.

  • 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 well 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. Then there’s those three beautifully coiffeured TV interviews, 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, he has insider info, 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 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 him – even the name suggests Philip Gould from the 1980s. Still, there’s smart evasive dialogue here and it’s compelling in the climax to Act One. 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 less 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, though he does cajole her. 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. And how it works.

 

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, and the second act has always been where it grips. Now, though, such is Brooke’s and Hassell’s chemistry, we now get that in their first two scenes together.

 

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 rapport with an surprise twist.

 

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 almost detach it; this works gains its soul’s ransom here. By the end of the run, everything in Act Two sings like this.

 

The penultimate scene after a traumatic event pitches Gould and Gibson with the latter finally giving some news. Hassell’s superb, edging 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. It’s a spellbinding performance, zig-zagging between guilt-riven pre-uni teen to a woman on the threshold of a mid-life decision: one that might transform the country.

 

With an exemplary cast Brooke persuades you that Gibson’s one of Hare’s great characters, one who might yet foreshadow a woman leading Labour too. Despite echoing the opening in the finale though, we’ve not quite squared the circle, but thrilled it in circuits and bumps. Yet as this works settles after four months it seems more than just very very good. Still a compelling dissection of what hampers the mindset of our main progressive party.

Published