“Sorry, but there’s no money left”. So wrote former Secretary to the Treasury, Liam Bryne, when Labour handed over reigns of the Exchequer to the coalition four years ago. This pithy summing-up of the most protracted fiscal fuck-up in recent decades – and the subsequent austerity-drive carried out in its stead – neatly captures the current overarching political narrative. It’s mostly bollocks, of course. You don’t have to be an Oxbridge-educated political scientist to see the current austerity drive for what it really is: an ideologically motivated dismantling of state services masquerading as “necessary” and “sensible” measures. There is no Plan B, we’re told. The result? Cuts, cuts and, yep, even more cuts.
With Hope – Jack Thorne’s new, austerity-themed play about a beleaguered team of Labour councillors struggling to justify public spending cuts – the playwright attempts to peel back the curtain on local council cuts to reveal how decisions are made and deals hammered out at the coalface of front line politics. It’s a deeply old-fashioned play, almost wilfully so. There’s a charming earnestness to Thorne’s portrayal of the embattled but ultimately heroic brigade of front-line Labour councillors, and there are few political plays that succeed in being decisively ‘feel-good’ in the way that Hope sets out to be.
There is nothing glamorous or sexy about the work that Mark (Paul Higgins) and his fellow councillors are involved with. This isn’t politics as The Thick of It-style satire of House of Cards-esque power play – far from it. This is politics as hard graft , with endless surgeries, budget meetings and public engagements. For Mark’s long-suffering council leader Hillary (Stella Gonet), it’s a never-ending numbers game in which every minor budgetary tweak involving street lamps, libraries and local swimming pools can have catastrophic knock-on consequences.
It begins with a rehearsal. Mark is muddling his way through a public address with his fellow councillor and sort-of-but-not-really girlfriend, Julie (Sharon Duncan-Brewster). We see him struggling to find the words to endorse spending cuts that he neither wants to deliver nor believes are justifiable. At first, he cuts a rather shambolic figure, but there’s also a spark of something more. Stood atop designer Tom Scutt’s large, wooden stage-within-a-stage, we glimpse the embers of some genuine fire. Later, Mark becomes the unlikely leader in an act of council-led protest, when he refuses to agree a budget as defiance against cuts made by Westminster diktat.
Edward Bond once described Saved as “almost irresponsibly optimistic”. If that is the case, then Thorne’s play is sure to break the feel-good-ometer. Hope is essentially designed to offer a Yuletide pick-me-up: on these terms, it works pretty well, even if the closing moments involving a chance encounter between Mark’s precocious son, Jake (Tommy Knight) and former, grizzled councillor George (Tom Georgeson), feels a tad too glib.
One of the play’s main focuses is the struggle between notions of ‘right’ and ‘good’. Is Mark simply too ‘good’ to take the ‘tough decisions’? Is it fair that the fate of the council and its constituents are taken on the basis of one, self-righteous bloke’s moral ‘principle’? These are interesting questions, but they are given short shrift in Thorne’s play, which arguably contains an over-abundance of unresolved subplots that fail to bring that combination of the personal and political into proper focus. Ultimately, Hope is a well-meaning, but rather lightweight attempt to wrestle with the issue of austerity.
Hope is playing at the Royal Court Theatre until 10 January. For more information and tickets, see the Royal Court Theatre website.