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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.