Guiding and supporting the theatre makers of the future…
Welcome to the Michael Grandage Company’s and Headlong’s production of Labour of Love by James Graham
Labour MP David Lyons cares about modernisation and ‘electability’… His constituency agent, Jean Whitaker cares about principles and her community. Set away from the Westminster bubble in the party’s traditional northern heartlands, this is a clash of philosophy, culture and class against the backdrop of the Labour Party over 25 years, as it moves from Kinnock through Blair into Corbyn… and beyond?
'MGC's producer, Nick Frankfort, commissioned James Graham's new play Labour of Love and the moment I read it, I knew we should be producing it directly in the West End. It was an incredibly timely play with huge political themes and a love story all rolled into one. It seemed to be the perfect piece to show that relevant, new work can thrive in the non subsidised arena and appeal to as wide an audience as possible. With MGC's unique commitment to access in the West End, offering a quarter of every performance at £10, it has been wonderful watching so many young people engage with a play of ideas inside a playhouse designed to bring popular theatre to the people. The whole experience was enhanced further by our collaboration with Headlong, a company dedicated to bringing new writing to new and diverse audiences. Their artistic director, Jeremy Herrin, continued his relationship with James Graham following their hugely successful collaboration on This House. Here, for the first time, we are able to offer a behind the scenes look at the building of Labour of Love. Our Education Associate, Dominic Francis, has complied a comprehensive document that charts the process and supplements the production for anyone interested in delving deeper. I hope you enjoy it.' Michael Grandage, Artistic Director, MGC
9th June 2017, the early hours of the morning in a Labour Party office in North Nottinghamshire. David Lyons, local MP for the past 27 years, waits anxiously with his constituency agent, Jean Whittaker, for the results of the snap General Election, the first reports suggesting a hung parliament. Having been re-elected six times since 1990, David faces the possibility of finally being voted out while his party, despite some gains, looks likely to be denied victory for the third time in a row.
Why is Labour losing seats in its traditional northern heartland while winning ‘safe’ Conservative ones elsewhere? What’s shifted within the party and country as a whole? David and Jean have witnessed many changes within the Labour movement over the past three decades: the election of Tony Blair as leader in 1994 and the birth of ‘New Labour’; the party’s landslide victory in the 1997 General Election; reduced majorities in the 2001 and 2005 elections; Tony Blair stepping down in 2007; successive leaders, Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband and now Jeremy Corbyn…
Through it all they’ve worked together side-by-side – David advocating the need for a new approach, Jean championing the old values. Despite their many differences, a grudging respect has grown between them, and with it affection. All this is pulled into sharp focus by the return of David’s ex-wife, Elizabeth, who suggests they give their marriage another try… Having guided the MP through six successive victories, is his fiery constituency agent prepared to see him lose now on the home front?
Director - Jeremy Herrin
Set & Costume Designer - Lee Newby
Lighting Designer - Neil Austin
Sound Designer - Paul Arditti
Video & Projection Designer - Duncan McLean
Wig & Hair Designer - Richard Mawbey
Casting Director - Sam Stevenson
Associate Director - Bryony Shanahan
Production Manager - Dom Fraser
Company Manager - Greg Shimmin
Deputy Stage Manager - Fran Redvers-Jones
Assistant Stage Manager - Josh Clark
Costume Supervisor - Mary Charlton
Props Supervisors - Lisa Buckley
- Daisy Bradley
Dialect Coach - Richard Ryder
Choreographer - Sian Williams
Head of Wardrobe - Charlotte Stidwell
Deputy Head of Wardrobe - Rosa Prados
Head of Wigs, Hair & Make-Up - Anna Pileci
Dresser - David Rees
Dresser - Debbie Johnston
James Graham’s plays include: Ink (Almeida/West End), This House (NT/West End – Olivier Award and Evening Standard Award Best Play nominations), Monster Raving Loony (Theatre Royal Plymouth/Soho Theatre), The Vote – broadcast live on television on the night of the general election 2015 (Donmar Warehouse), Privacy (Donmar Warehouse/Public Theater, New York), The Angry Brigade (Theatre Royal Plymouth/Bush Theatre), Tory Boyz (National Youth Theatre) and the book for the Finding Neverland musical on Broadway. As Writer in Residence at the Finborough Theatre his plays include Eden’s Empire (winner of the Catherine Johnson Best Play Award), The Man and Sons of York.
Writing for television includes: Coalition (Channel 4 winner of the RTS Best Single Drama in 2016), Prisoners’ Wives and Caught in a Trap.
Writing for film includes: X Plus Y, selected for the Toronto International and London Film Festival in 2014, before being released in cinemas worldwide in spring 2015. He is currently working on Gypsy Boy for BBC Films, and a film Adaptation of 1984.
A Labour MP
A ‘few years younger’ than Jean, David was also born and brought up locally before winning a scholarship to Oxford University. Part of a new generation of Labour MPs, he’s keen to modernize the party, rebranding it in the hope of making it more electable after years in opposition. Jean’s concerned he’s more interested in image than content, but she recognises his passion and pragmatism.
A constituency agent
Born and bred in North Nottinghamshire, Jean’s been a card-carrying member of the Labour Party since the age of 14. Described by David as ‘hard as nails’, she’s spent a lifetime fighting for the rights of the working-class left in her community. Her husband, a former miner, was the local Labour MP before ill health forced him to retire and David replaced him.
David’s wife, a lawyer
Not a local, Elizabeth reluctantly followed her husband to his new constituency, although she thinks they should have waited for a seat closer to Westminster, Number 10 and, ultimately, a place in the cabinet – she has ambitions for her husband’s career to match her own and they don’t start in North Nottinghamshire.
A businessman investor
From China, Mr. Shen’s in the final stages of choosing a European city in which to build his new train plant, thereby boosting employment and the economy. David argues that his constituency is the ideal place: a prime location with excellent transport links and, most importantly, a willing workforce. Securing this multi-million pound deal would also secure the area’s future.
A local councillor and party worker
‘London born, nominally middle-class, with a slightly affected working-class tone’, Len is Secretary of the local Labour Party, eventually becoming Leader of the Council. A Fabian scholar, he’s always had his doubts about David’s loyalties to the grassroot party members, his frustrations barely concealing his own political ambitions.
A constituent and party worker
Another local, Margot started her working life as a travel agent, campaigning for the local Labour Party in her spare time, before securing a position on the council and eventually becoming Deputy Leader.
Associate Director Bryony Shanahan provides a week-by-week summary of rehearsals for Labour of Love
And before we know it, that’s week one done! It’s gone by in a flash and yet we feel right in the thick of the world now, having delved straight into the small matter of British politics from 1990 to 2017.
When I arrived for the first day, the rehearsal room seemed vast: Stage Management were setting up, designer Lee Newby was crouched by his model-box getting ready for the presentation and an impressive spread of tea, coffee, pastries and fruit was waiting for people to get stuck in. I got things ready my end - getting research books out for people to dip into and generally trying to make myself useful, whilst working through that first day of school feeling that everyone must have!
Soon after, people started arriving and before long the room was bubbling with catch-ups and introductions as people prepared for the ‘Meet and Greet’. By 10.30am the room didn’t seem quite so vast as forty or so people got into the obligatory circle where we go round and introduce ourselves and say what we’re doing on the production. It breaks the ice and, vitally, reminds you how enormous the team working on this production is: producers, actors, creatives, marketing departments and many, many more.
After the introductions, we sat down and launched into the first read through, which a smaller group stayed for. It’s great to finally hear the script out loud after months of prep and reading it to yourself. Two things were immediately obvious: we have a great cast and the play is brilliant. The jokes and humour flew, but also I hadn’t anticipated how much it would move me. The characters are so human and we spend nearly a lifetime with them, through huge experiences to the little but significant ones.
One of the main tasks this week was to really get our heads around the timeline of events, which spans from 1990 to 2017, and includes huge global landmarks, crises, achievements, scandals, as well as working out the localised timelines of our characters. Before getting up on our feet, director Jeremy Herrin wanted us to go through the play thoroughly, scene-by-scene, extracting all of our questions and, as a whole group, having the big conversations together.
As it’s a new play we were really lucky to have writer James Graham with us all week, who could help us with some questions but also, excitingly, respond to how it was sounding and to the conversations we were having. He’s now spending the first weekend making small re-writes that incorporate this week’s work.
The scene analysis is really detailed and vital but it’s quite tiring too in its intensity, so we broke the week up with visits from people working directly in the Labour Party and British politics. These included past MPs, cabinet members, lobbyists and also a current constituency agent. They were all fascinating and the passion with which they expressed themselves was incredible and made me realise how driven they are and how much they care, irrespective of whether or not I may agree with them.
It also helped us understand the complexities within the Labour Party itself and how there are very different schools of thought, from grassroots to leadership, and how this has always been the case. This is at the heart of the play and so it was brilliant to get some first-hand accounts and insight. And the conversations have already started to challenge my own thoughts and understanding, which I didn’t expect.
So a really interesting and stimulating first week - I can’t wait for us to get on our feet now. We actually don’t have lots of time, so we’ll be moving with real energy over the next three weeks to get us ready for tech.
That's another week done and we’re half-way through our rehearsal period. It's amazing how quickly time flies and we're now right in the thick of staging the piece.
The play moves between many different decades, so this has been something we've been playing with in rehearsals, asking: ‘How can we show this?’ Helpfully there are lots of specifics written into the text itself, but Jeremy has also been reacting to ideas in the room with Stage Management doing their usual magic. For example, someone might have the idea of eating a sausage sandwich and, before you can blink, there they are for us! In a tight schedule and big piece this is brilliant and means we can keep moving forward with fluidity and banking those spontaneous ideas found on our feet.
Between Design, Props and Stage Management teams, we've been given an entire room full of ‘stuff’ that fits within the world of the play. This ranges from every prop - and there's lots! - mentioned in the text, but also anything that felt like it could belong and be useful within a constituency office setting. This means the process is really playful and we're always hunting out opportunities for detail and fun business to include in the scenes. I'm regularly finding myself walking to the props table and going straight down nostalgia lane with Walkmans, old PCs, floppy disks and such like.
Jeremy lets the actors sketch through a scene first from instinct, experimenting with different positions and tones, and then he'll shape it, suggesting and nudging a direction a bit, before repeating this cycle. Each time we get more specificity, but as the actors are encouraged to keep experimenting rather than fixing anything down, we make discoveries each time that edge us closer.
This is in contrast to other scenes that play with farce and have set pieces of comedy. The end result should look spontaneous and chaotic, but as ever with farce it has to be tightly choreographed with real detail. We spent a lot of time getting the beats clear in a joyful moment of panic for the characters, involving an important diplomatic visit and a series of increasingly unlucky events! In these moments, drilling and repetition is the name of the game and the detail is as fine as: ‘Look down, say your line, pause, look over your shoulder, walk towards the desk, double back on yourself,’ etc.
We've also been continuing to wade through the vast political landscape we're dealing with, discovering important details all the time. For example, it's only the candidate and agent that can wear rosettes on polling days, and there we were merrily attaching them to every blazer! It's great to have an open line to some of our experts on this and be able to check with them as we go that what we're doing is accurate. We've done our research, but there are so many tiny details and unofficial rules that it's important we're checking the authenticity along the way.
Psychologically, getting over the two week mark you can feel the entire company stepping up into the next gear and generally start to work a bit faster as decisions become firmer too.
Another busy week and another big push from all departments. As well as continuing to rehearse and shape the scenes, we also had the considerable task of finalising the filming of all the material for the transitions between scenes - the idea being that these will help us convey the passage of time, as well as providing context to the political and global events that were taking place at the time.
Our Video and Projection Designer, Duncan McLean, has created an incredibly detailed shooting list. In terms of co-ordination, this has been a huge task and each department has contributed to making it possible. A big team of people were booked in - including lots of familiar faces from the Production Team - to play other candidates, head teachers, school children, builders, people at rallies, etc. They all need costumes, and costumes appropriate for each year that we’re in - anything from 1990 to 2017! The Props Department have been working hard to make sure that everything used is authentic and helps tell the story accurately, while Wigs have had to make sure they were ready before the usual deadline of technical rehearsals, especially for central character MP David Lyons, so that the look is consistent and accurate over the years. All of this work has been done alongside the usual schedule for making the show, so it's been an incredible effort from everyone and hopefully will pay off next week when the filming takes place.
We've also started to have more members of the Creative Team in the room with us, which is great. Sound Designer, Paul Arditti, is feeding us live sound-effects for the many pieces of technology - from the latest iPhone to old fax-machines that get stuck halfway through, plus some incredible millennium tunes that are taking us all back! It's great having the team around to react directly to what's happening in rehearsals and to offer suggestions. All this work is supporting the text, which is such a pleasure to work on as it jumps off the page with huge heart and humour.
This week turned out quite differently than expected and the team responded to it with real strength and skill. Very sadly Sarah Lancashire had to withdraw from the production following medical advice, which was a shock but obviously her health must come first and the whole team wished her all the best.
A busy few days followed as we tried to find an actor to come in and step up to this challenge… Brilliantly we now have the incredible Tamsin Greig on board and we feel very lucky indeed to have her. After a brief introduction to the team and a read through it was straight to business! We’ve added an extra week of rehearsals and delayed our opening night to make sure we have enough time to prepare.
Jeremy thought the best plan was to use this week to sketch the entire show so that the cast had a more cohesive overview, and so that Tamsin could get to grips with the shape as soon as possible. Obviously we've been with the play for a while now and what was exciting was that Jeremy was able to be really detailed and specific about the staging, working at speed, which meant we were moving through the scenes solidly and building momentum all the time. Structurally it’s incredibly useful for everyone to keep moving through the material and to keep thinking of the scope of the passing of 27 years.
Having a new person in the room also gave us another perspective from which to interrogate the text, and having James Graham with us throughout the process is simply brilliant. He can make slight edits, help us with context, or even respond to something that's happened spontaneously and turn it into something that can be used in the play. This environment of openness and generosity is incredibly useful and encourages risk-taking and play.
We’re having so much fun in rehearsals and this translates to the relationships on stage, which fits the world of the play. There's so much humour in it but it's all held together by huge heart, pain and real-life difficulties, which I think we can all relate to in some way. The characters are so finely drawn on the page and the cast are bringing their skill and humanity to make them real, vivid people that we see in triumph and difficulty. It's a joy.
We also had a visit from Gloria De Piero, the current MP of Ashfield, where the play is set, which was absolutely fascinating. Her passion for the constituency and its people was obvious and clearly drives and motivates her to do what is undoubtedly a very difficult job. She talked with warmth, humility and honesty, referring to times she feels she didn't predict what was coming, as well as achievements she's proud of. It was brilliant to add to our knowledge of the constituency itself - the more we know, the more we can play. We also ended up in the Mansfield Chad, a local paper referenced in the play, which we're delighted about!
A busy but positive week with a lot done, and a lot left to do...
We've made it to our last week in the rehearsal room - from next week we’ll be working on stage in the theatre. That knowledge makes everything feel a bit more real and you can sense the whole team shift up a gear as we come closer and closer to meeting an audience. Rehearsals necessarily close the focus down to a small group of people as we figure things out in a safe environment, but at this stage our collective consciousness begins to widen again to what it is we’re doing and who we’re doing it for.
Practically this means moving faster through the material and layering more detail onto the bones we've already laid out. Also, as opposed to rehearsing scenes in isolation, we’ve started to run them consecutively. This is when we really get a sense of rhythm and tone, and occasionally we find we need to shift something as it no longer feels right in the context of what came before. For this play in particular, running scenes together means we can explore the movement of time and the changes in the characters much more coherently. The story spans 27 years, which means the cast play an extraordinary range of ages, situations and events against a changing political backdrop. Without revealing too much, the piece plays with time and structure, so this week we’ve rehearsed in year order, as opposed to scene order, to help the cast understand their characters in context: how old they are, what their job is, who they're with, etc. Our hope is that when we put the play back together we will have sharpened the action and be working in an even more nuanced way.
Whilst we continued work in the rehearsal room, the rest of the Creative Team and Stage Management were busy in the theatre completing our get-in and beginning to 'dry tech' the show - this means they do everything they can without the cast actually being present. This includes rigging and plotting the lights, sound and video and working on the set. At the end of main rehearsals each day, I continued with the understudies whilst Jeremy and our Deputy Stage Manager, Fran Redvers-Jones, went to the theatre to work on the transitions between scenes, which are a big part of the show. If we can get a strong version of these plotted before our technical rehearsals begin we'll be in a really good position to maximise our time in the theatre.
Alongside rehearsals, we've also continued to get actors into costume fittings as costumes will play such a big part in telling the story of the piece - there are plenty of changes throughout. Everything is thoroughly considered, from pins on lapels to red socks. Similarly, on the set we're having real fun with the tiniest of details - such as how a kettle from 1990 compares to one from 2017. Hopefully everyone will spot a different element. When we open we hope that all of the small details, as well as the big ideas, will contribute to a rich experience.
We now have next week to rehearse on stage before doing a short tech and opening for previews. The team will continue to gear up and get match-fit!
We've now officially finished our rehearsal period. It's amazing how quickly this moment has come, despite having started back in August. Thinking back to the read through on the first day makes me realise just how much has been achieved over the past six weeks.
This week was a unique experience for the team as we were rehearsing on stage at the Noel Coward Theatre with our set fully in place. This is because we were working with an extended schedule and it was a real luxury for us to have this time in the theatre. Jeremy was very clear from the start that this week should be about rehearsing and that we shouldn't be tempted to get technical at any point.
The first day was rather overwhelming: you suddenly go from a contained rehearsal room to a huge auditorium with all those empty seats, which very soon will be filled with people coming to enjoy an evening’s entertainment. After an inevitable period of adjustment it was brilliant to be in the actual space. We became even more specific about the staging, especially as Jeremy was able to get a perspective from the back of the stalls and circles.
The Noel Coward is a beautiful old Victorian theatre with a wonderful proscenium arch, balcony boxes and a steep, four-tiered auditorium. These buildings have such a sense of history, which you can’t help but feel everywhere you go - the walls are covered with posters of legendary productions starring some of our theatre greats. It's so exciting to be the latest tenants here!
Even though we weren’t focusing on anything technical, naturally the cast started to adjust to their new environment, especially the scale of it. It takes extra voice muscle to fill such a vast space and the performances began to size-up to meet the auditorium. Actors often have to squeeze this process into the technical rehearsals, so it's great they’ve had this week to begin to adapt - it's such a skill to preserve the authenticity of the characters and their relationships whilst technically engaging the voice to ensure 800-plus audience members can hear.
This week was all about the final work on scenes, working towards our first run through on Friday. It went really well. Of course we have work to do - we always do - but it’s at exactly this point we begin to really need an audience. In many ways, it's when we put the piece in front of them that we learn the most.
We also had a rehearsal call on Saturday, which was put aside for us to practice the transitions and quick costume changes with the cast, crew and dressers. We could have saved this for the technical rehearsals but thought it would put us in a really good position if we had a chance to run it all before then. Some of the changes are huge and incredibly fast, which will hopefully be exhilarating for an audience, and backstage it’s like a military operation: dressers stand waiting in the quick-change booths brandishing shirts, shoe horns, combs, etc. It's like a show in itself to see this happening - the team work is incredible. And all of it has to be done silently and in the dark!
This time next week we'll have had our first audiences in. There are those familiar butterflies…