“It’s the trouble with being so overwhelmingly Labour”
The plot for Jack Thorne’s Hope could be lifted from the newspapers right now – a cash-strapped Labour council is faced with impossible choices as austerity continues to bites hard and £22 million has to be trimmed from this year’s budget, £64 million over the next three years. In Newcastle, the figure is actually £90 million despite having already lost £151 million over the last four years, and the decisions about what essential services are to be cut are those that plague Hilary and Mark, the Leader and Deputy Leader respectively, of Thorne’s unspecified local government.
Stella Gonet’s Hilary is determined to make it work, a New Labour pragmatism already drawing up the list of priorities – Sure Start centres versus swimming pools, daycare for the disabled versus personal safety in rough areas to give but a couple of examples – but Paul Higgins’ Mark is cut from much more traditional cloth and his protesting colleagues coalesce around him. Eventually, he reluctantly spearheads a rebellion and a refusal to set an amended budget but though this is described as a fable, it is no fairytale, and the consequences of defying government are all too real.
Thorne embodies this conflict in Higgins’ anguished, recovering alcoholic Mark – the unpalatability of being responsible for cutting such vital services, but equally the realisation that shirking that accountability through rebellion simply won’t make things better and might actually make things worse. And in expanding on the complexity of his personal life – ex-wife Gina is the manager of the under-threat daycare centre, colleague and sometime squeeze Julie, his precocious teenager of a son Jake – there’s a compelling case for the retreat into inaction that characterised the response of so many to the cuts.
Seeing it just before press night, it did feel though that John Tiffany’s production could still use a little tinkering, some cuts of its own perhaps, in the spirit of the play. Tiffany’s stylistic flourishes, as inimitably elegant as they are, serve little purpose other than to make it instantly recognisable as his work. And Tom Scutt’s meticulous town hall set can feel a little cavernous in some of the more intimate scenes, one particular post-coital scene feeling extremely distant when Tiffany’s focus should arguably much tighter and closer.
It is well acted though. Higgins is excellent as is Tommy Knight as the beautifully written Jake, one of the best onstage teenagers of the year, Sharon Duncan-Brewster’s compassionate Julie and Christine Entwisle’s campaigning Gina are both strong as is the wry humour of Rudi Dharmalingham’s Sarwan. Tom Georgeson’s thoroughly old Labour George is wonderfully eloquent, in mourning for what society used to be, and Jo Eastwood’s Laura will melt even the stoniest of hearts by putting a very real face right in the path of the hitherto anonymous swingeing cuts.