Local politics isn’t sexy. It’s the support crew that cleans up while the rockstars break out their set list of strained smiles and hollow promises on the next main stage. I still remember, as a child, my dad frustratedly filling us in on the council meetings he attended as a school governor; the high point, if I recall rightly, was a farcical dispute about bins.
Hope, therefore, is not particularly promising as a theatrical premise. A local Labour council struggles to make budget savings? Not exactly thrilling. But actually, Jack Thorne’s play feels like the perfect drama for the present political moment. In the context of the Royal Court’s revolution themed season, it might not be the most rousing call to arms, but it depicts the possibility for change on a level that actually feels within reach. It makes politics ordinary, turning its gaze on the crippling everyday impacts of austerity in a way that most national politicians seem incapable of imagining.
Thorne’s councillors are in an impossible position. With £64 million of savings to make by 2017, it’s a miserable matter of deciding on the marginally lesser of many evils. Should cuts be made to care for the elderly or the disabled? Where can savings be made on Sure Start Centres? As for the local library and museum – forget it.
Thankfully, though, Thorne’s play is not all hand-wringing budget meetings. At its centre is deputy council leader Mark, a tortured would-be idealist who is desperate to be a good man in dire circumstances. After his similarly tormented turn in Utopia, Paul Higgins seems made to inhabit characters crumbling under pressure, hair more dishevelled by the minute and body curling up further and further into his suit jacket. Compounding the difficulty of the cuts, Mark’s ex-wife Gina (Christine Entwisle) gets wind that her day centre for the disabled is going to be slashed and mounts a big, social media-savvy campaign, while his relationships with precociously intelligent son Jake (Tommy Knight) and fellow councillor and sometime lover Julie (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) come under increasing strain.
Like Mark, everyone on the council wants to “do the right thing” – a phrase that becomes more and more fraught as the play goes on. Never was there more proof that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Stella Gonet’s Hilary is cool and pragmatic, but beneath her armour she’s utterly committed to the town she serves, as is well-meaning, unassuming Lata (Nisha Nayar). At the more idealistic end of the scale are Julie – who also has to juggle the expectations of her council veteran father George (Tom Georgeson) – and recklessly principled Sarwan (Rudi Dharmalingam).
It’s the latter who acts as the catalyst for change, urging his fellow councillors to take a stand. Sometimes, though, principles come at a high price. The fate of the council serves to animate the precarious balance between what is right and what is pragmatic, highlighting the complexity of the decisions currently faced by local government. The choice seems to be a bleak one: either make devastating cuts yourself, or have others make even worse ones for you.
Thorne also turns his attention to the wider predicament of the modern Labour party and the erosion of solidarity by Thatcherite principles of individualism. In a slightly clunky but politically perceptive speech, former council leader George mourns the death of the party he has dedicated his life to and the political fervour that seems to be in retreat: “Idealism is dead. Solidarity is dead. It’s been destroyed by pragmatism and hatred and shame.” At the same time, though, there’s something freeing about this dissolution of past touchstones; “we don’t represent anything any more,” George observes, so perhaps now is the time to make bold decisions for the better.
Theatrically, Hope is not about to set pulses racing, but its plain, sober style feels just right. John Tiffany’s unshowy production contains all the scenes within Tom Scutt’s meticulously realised town hall design, its drab detail a constant reminder of the realities these characters are working within. No giant ball ponds here; this form of political rebellion is not fun (as Russell Brand famously promises) but hard and boring, as real change often tends to be. Revolution is just as likely to be a long slog as a sudden spark of action.
There is, at times, a slight tendency to use characters as mouthpieces for debate. George in particular feels a bit like the weary, battle-hardened voice of old Labour, while Mark and Hilary’s conversation about the advantages or otherwise of principles acts as something of a gloss on the council’s choice of course and its consequences. But however contrived, Hope‘s conclusion somehow, quietly yet insistently – and against all odds – engenders the sentiment of its title. Change probably will be slow and frustrating and involve a hundred painful compromises along the way, and it will probably have a lot more to do with bins and libraries and day centres than the Russell Brands of this world would have us believe, but there’s still the possibility that, if we just try, we might begin to make the world a better place.