HOPE Royal Court, SW1

SURE START ,  SPEED HUMPS,  SOLIDARITY AND SENTIMENT…

 
Sharp timing, the night before the Autumn Budget Statement! It’s about a Labour council in a post-industrial, working-class provincial town struggling with Government cuts of £ 22 million on top of three years’ previous austerities. After a fierce environmental lecture the other week and that Anders Lustgarten bore-in last year, you might well fear a hardish night in the People’s Republic of Sloane Square. But all is well. It’s by Jack Thorne – who did the spooky, poetic vampire adaptation LET THE RIGHT ONE IN. And while it could hardly be more rooted in prosaic modernity, it has the same skill and grip: funny, subtle, and in the broadest sense, balanced. If not politically, at least between recession gloom and the “Hope” of the title.

 
It is staged entirely within a gloomy public hall, whose stage rolls forward and back . A single, depressing local-authority desk and chairs are the only furnishings to represent the Council offices where the Labour group agonize , plus a couple of domestic interiors for the key protagonists. There is divorced, depressed Mark the Deputy Leader (a pleasingly angsty Paul Higgins), and his girlfriend Julie (Sharon Duncan-Brewster). Cuts are discussed between them and others – including Sarwan (Rudi Dharmalingham) and the hilariously realistic Council leader Hilary (Stella Gonet , who was so blissful as Old Thatcher in Handbagged). A nice antiphonal set-up has them doing random PE exercises while reminding us what diverse responsibilities councillors have – “Taps at graves. Taxi licensing – deciding who’ll have the licence to pick your teenage girls up at night. Allotments. Traffic lights. Speed cameras. Speed bumps. Welfare issues. Parking Charges…”

 

 
Soon Mark’s ex-wife Gina is enraged by the cutting of her day centre for people with learning difficulties – a clientele enchantingly brought to life by Jo Eastwood as Laura. Gina stages a showy demonstration which sparks a Twitterstorm and an e- petition – not difficult once they get Stephen Fry, since these days nobody needs to get off their bum and demonstrate but can just self-righteously click. This panics the national party, and risks getting the poor devils disowned by Ed Miliband. So they must cut elsewhere: four Sure Start centres in – gulp! – Muslim estates…

 

 
Well, you see where this is going. Farce , tragedy and emotional travails intertwine, as in life. The play’s mischievous superscription is from Otto von Bismarck “Laws are like sausages. It is better not to see them being made”. But the seed of hope and humour flowers most beautifully in the hands of a wonderful Tommy Knight, playing the 16 year old son of sad Mark and stroppy Gina. Cocky and perceptive, cheeky and hesitant, bookish and determined, the quintessential teenager and the hope for the future, he steals every scene he is in. It was with difficulty that my young companion prevented herself from proposing to him during the curtain call.

 

 
In a gorgeous final scene with Julie’s dreadful, self-indulgent, sentimentally old-Labour Dad on a park bench, it is the lad who offers the only possible moral. “It’s possible I will have a better life than you. The world’s sort of pointless, if you don’t try”. Now there’s a Christmas message for the age of pessimism…

 

box office 020 7565 5000 to 10 Jan
rating four   4 Meece Rating

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