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The play may be billed as politics, but the real story is the people behind the politics. It is this human story, not a soapbox, that makes Love If When We Beat Them a good start to Live’s anniversary programme.
Sometimes, the fortunes of a play come to luck. Even if you’ve penned the greatest play in the world, you can struggle to get an audience if the topic’s not in fashion. A play set in 1996 with both the runaway success of Newcastle United and runaway success of Labour as a government in waiting might have parallels now, but when it was first showcased at last year’s Elevator festival, it was far from certain. There was no guarantee the the new Labour lead fresh from Partygate would last – now, however a Labour victory next year is increasingly looking like a forgone conclusion (for anyone not certain of what changed in the last 12 months: where have you been)? And even if you could have predicted that, no-one could have predicted Newcastle United’s first Wembley appearance for years. But hey, no-one’s complaining.
With the stage set around a pool table, there’s a couple of of signs to show it’s the nineties: a payphone by the wall, and £1.50 for a pint of beer (I said as I stared longingly). Len (David Nellist) and Michael (Dean Bone) are playing pool taunting each other on their respective football affiliations of Newcastle and Sunderland and/or resolving confusion over what you now call the Second Division. Until Michael drops in a downer by mentioning that a mutual friend of theirs has unexpectedly died. However, whilst Michael is reflecting on their loss, Len is keeping his eye on the bigger picture. That unfortunate guy was the local MP, and Len’s convinced he’ll be a shoo-in as successor, much to the annoyance of Jean (Jessica Johnson), who’d rather have a husband there for her. Unluckily for Len, Victoria (Eve Tucker) from Manchester is also eyeing up the seat – and, worse for him, already seems to have the backing of Labour’s NEC.
Yes, one thing from 1996 that’s made a comeback is Labour in-fighting. Just like Newcastle and Sunderland are more interested in sniping at each other than focusing on beating the teams down south, with a Labour victory next year already in the bag, the Blairite right and Old Labour left are in an increasingly bitter struggle for control of the party. Victoria blames Len’s wing for the Labour’s most disastrous defeat, Len blames the defeat on the splitters. In fact, a good proportion of the play goes to raking over the old arguments of the two labour wings that aren’t too different from today’s arguments. What would have been a mistake here is to make one side into a straw man so that the other side wins the arguments. (Please don’t do that again, that ranks amongst one of the worst plays I’ve ever seen.) However, Rob Ward writes Len and Victoria as two soul believing passionately in what they say. Whether people call you a wild-eyed trot and a Red Tory sell-out, you can watch this play and think your points have been well made.
But that’s not really what the play’s about. The real thrust of Love It When We Beat Them isn’t so much the politics, but the people behind the politics. Len and Victoria have many faults that are commonplace to their respective leanings. For a start, both of them are callously campaigning before the old MP’s funeral has even finished. Len is the kind of Old Labour stalwart who knows a thousand words for “traitor” and no words for “compromise”. He has no concept of picking your battles, doubles down on mistruths that are clearly not correct, makes poor choices of political allies, and never seems to realise how often he becomes his own worst enemy. For Victoria’s part, she is the better political operator and commands wide support, but there is something about here style which that is manufactured and calculating, rather than principles or passion. She also struggles to not look down on the people of Newcastle – albeit not as badly as her metropolitan colleagues down Manchester way. When you see her defending her would-be constituents from her own partner, you know there’s a problem.
One small but interesting detail I noticed is that the script specifies that Victoria needs to be not white. You might think that’s an unnecessary stipulation, but there is a reason why this matters;. Today, we have our first non-white Prime Minister; in the mid-nineties, however, it was extremely rare for overwhelmingly white constituencies to have anything other than a white MP. Also, Len and Victoria both have skeletons in their cupboards that could lose them the election; one of them is electoral poison just as much today as it was was back then, but the other one is perfectly normal today. I can’t go into more details without spoilers, but the flaws of northern politics are explored just as much as the virtues.
There’s one other thing to pick up on which you probably didn’t notice – and the fact it’s hard to notice is a good thing. Most of the characters, particular Len and Michael, talk an awful of inconsequential waffle, especially towards the start of the play. Some theatre companies would have ensured it’s all, delivered, slowly. And articulately. Because, we must – course – ensure – not one, single, word, gets missed. That would have been a mistake, because this play works by zoning back it when they stop talking shite and mention something of substance. Luckily, director Bex Bowser gets what Rob Ward was trying to achieve and the performance works the only way it could.
There’s just one thing I wasn’t convinced with. This is going to be an unpopular opinion, because there was a lot of praise for the set; clearly a lot of love went into it, and attention comes down to a tee. But the set is dominated by a pool table, which plays no part in the story after the first 5 minutes. I get the impression that, like in One Off, the set was a late design decision. But whilst the abstract set of One Off could adapt to anything it had to represent, this set shouted “social club” whether or not that was the scene in question; in particular Len and Jean’s heart-wrenching conversations with the guidance counsellor were knock a bit off kilter by the imposing pool table. The set is too popular to chance, and it is probably too late to restructure the play to be centred around the social club more, but maybe some more cunning use of lighting could have been employed to conceal the social club set when it wasn’t needed.
As against that, however, there’s still may sub-plots from the play I’ve not had time to go into. Len and Jean’s strained relationship is a big part of the story inside and outside of the relationship therapist sessions. And the quiet alienation of Len’s protege Michael also forms a decisive moment of the story, when Len thinks too much about himself and not enough for the friend on hard times. I can’t really comment of the football parallels as I wasn’t there, although it was probably kinder for the story to end when it did. Len would NOT be happy to learn who’s joining Newcastle in the Premiership.
Does this count as political theatre? I guess it depends which way you look at it. I suppose it’s fair to say that if you voted Conservative in 1997, or you’re planning to vote Conservative in 2024, this is probably not the play for you. Or you look on this as not really political theatre, but human theatre with a backdrop of politics. Regardless, there is a rule that good political theatre makes people think, whilst bad political theatre tells people what to think. Countless plays fall foul of this, but Rob Ward gets this. Well done Live Theatre and Emmerson & Ward productions, and a good start to the 50th anniversary season.
Love IT When We Beat Them runs until the 25th March at Live Theatre.
Also at the press launch …
The press night of Love It When We Beat Them was held together with the press launch for Live Theatre’s 50th Anniversary season. As is customary for my coverage of these events, I won’t do a straight repetition of the press launch, but instead focus on the bits that interest me. What Jack McNamara did make a big thing of was the focus of this year. The 40th anniversary season under Max Roberts heavily focused on Live’s greatest hits; the main events this time, however, are entirely new work. I’ve already covered the first of the four above; the other three I’ve give more coverage to as we get nearer to them.
Before going into highlights, I will repeat one anecdote from the launch. McNamara talked about a conversation with one of Live Theatre’s founders half a century ago – apparently, their first play was a bit of a disaster. But they picked themselves up and learned from their mistakes and few people can argue with the result now. I’m repeating this because it’s a useful lessons for everyone. Such is the slick marketing of theatre nowadays you’d be forgiven for thinking all successful organisations and artists hit the ground running and go up and up and up. The reality, however, is that it’s almost always a journey of three steps forward and two steps back. There’s a lot of bluff and people always sound like they know more about what they’re doing than they really to, but they’re probably working it out as they’re going along. So don’t worry if you’re recovering from one mistake after another – it happens to the best of us.
Okay, on to personal highlights.
One thing that did get my attention was the return of Wintry Tales. I didn’t cover that last year, as my attention was on Wishes on the Wind which was being shown in parallel, but I remember hearing a lot of positive noises about this. This is essentially a project where a dramaturg takes children’s stories and puts them and their wild imaginations on stage. I vaguely remember seeing something similar 10 years previously, but now this looks like it could become a regular feature. I can see this making sense too; since 2016 Live Theatre has been running Live Works, aimed at encouraging creative writing for children, but until now it’s been largely running as a parallel and separate venture. Having done this much work, it makes sense to see some of it come on the stage next door.
There is still a mini-celebration of Live Theatre’s greatest hits in April. These are mostly talks and reading rather than revivals of any plays. However, the thing in this list which I’m definitely circling is The Taxi Driver’s Daughter. Nina Berry impressed me a few years years ago with the surprise smash hit that came out of nowhere: the beautiful always-meant-to-be love story The Terminal Velocity of Snowflakes. She’s been out of the north-east for a while, but is now back with an adaptation of a Julia Darling book, with the late Julia Darling herself one of Live’s stalwarts.
But the big news is a big triumph for The Laurels. Their flagship production last year was a runaway success, with the original run selling out, the encore run in August practically selling out two, not to mention winning my own titles of Best North-East Fringe Production and Best Individual Performance (for Becky Clayburn). Now Gerry and Sewell are back on the bigger stage at Live Theatre this November. And it is thoroughly deserved. Jonathan Tulloch’s The Season Ticket was a great book in its own right, as one of the first to recognise the difference between working class and underclass – but Jamie Eastlake’s adaptation took a crazy gamble with a single actor called “Tyneside” who’s part narrator, part supporting cast and part clown, which gave this performance a signature mark. (And the good news: Becky Clayburn is repeating the role she pulled off so well.) Newcastle peeps, if you found the Metro to Whitley Bay too much hassle, you have no excuse this time. And I’ll say, once again, circumstances may have conspired to force Theatre N16 out of London and re-emerge under a new brand in Whitley Bay, but London’s loss is Tyneside’s gain.
And that brings us up to date. Good start for the year at the launch; looking forward to the rest of it.
Boring fine print: As I am now on the Live Theatre press list, I will have access to more press tickets than I did previously. I will give a reminder at this point that you will not get a more favourable review from me because i saw it for free, but I do make an effort to get reviews out sooner and see plays earlier in the run. One important thing, though: if you are going to Live Theatre and you want me to review you, you are encouraged to contact me directly. Even if I have access to press tickets, I always more of an effort for groups who want to know what I think. Anyway, thank again for the invitation.