Will Gore reviews Hope at The Royal Court, a play that offers a window into the inner workings of local government cuts
To cut or not to cut? That’s the question at the heart of Hope by Jack Thorne, a play about a Labour council in an unnamed “working class town” struggling to decide how to make the huge savings they are expected to make in the name of austerity. A group of councillors, including steely leader Hilary (Stella Gonet) and her deputy Mark (Paul Higgins), are forced to make such difficult choices as whether to cut care for the disabled or the elderly, and then must face up to the anger and special pleading when these cuts start to lacerate.
This could, and probably should, have been the starting point for an urgent and engrossing play about the current state of local politics. Unfortunately, despite the relevance of its subject matter, Hope fails to ignite. Rather than making the council follow through with the cuts, what Thorne has them do is rebel against the Conservative-led government’s austerity drive by cancelling all cuts and refusing to set a budget. This may be a heartfelt call to action, but it’s also a dramatic dead end – a load of decent people deciding to ‘do the right thing’ do not make for an exciting play.
Director John Tiffany, who last worked with Thorne on the mega hit Let The Right One In, attempts to inject some life, and theatricality, into proceedings with movement sequences and musical instruments and there are some strong performances, particularly from Higgins and the magnificent Tommy Knight who plays Mark’s precocious son, but the domestic sub-plots feel under-developed.
For a play that is all about the current state of Labour, it pulls its punches. The party’s financial mismanagement when in power is not mentioned, the leadership’s obsession with spin over principle is alluded to only briefly and the fact that Labour have, in a number of areas of the country, somehow managed to ship support to Farage and his UKIP mob is ignored. At one point an ‘old Labour’ character gives a speech about how the party has lost its socialist impulse, but all the play has to offer in the face of this criticism is woolly idealism.
If Hope had followed through with its initial set up, forcing its characters to make hard choices and face the consequences, this would surely have reaped more reward. It would, at the very least, have had the painful ring of truth about it.
Hope will run at the Royal Court until the 10 January, royalcourttheatre.com