It is hard to believe it possible that a play about local authority spending cuts could be quite as entertaining as this. Jack Thorne’s terrific new play is neither satirical nor cynical, rather it is a factual account of a fictional Labour council’s efforts to square a familiar circle and it becomes so engrossing because of the way in which the writer skilfully develops his characters, weaves in personal stories and spikes the cocktail with generous infusions of laugh-out-loud humour. Faced with a £22 million cut in national government funding and denied any means to raise its own further revenue, this council prepares to set a budget for the coming year, deciding where the axe will have to fall – day care centres, libraries, swimming pools, public conveniences, etc are all lined up as likely victims. The Councillors all know that, when an assault takes place in an area where street lighting has been removed, they will be blamed and their level of personal involvement with public decisions is further emphasised by the ex-wife of deputy leader Mark running a special needs centre faced with closure. Fresh from a long run in Handbagged, Stella Gonet does not quite shed the Thatcher persona as council leader Hilary, but the character’s self-sacrificing sense of duty makes her far more sympathetic. Paul Higgins is perfect as the wavering Mark, battling with alcoholism, managing a tentative relationship with fellow councillor Julie (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) and taking responsibility for his excessively smart teenage son Jake (Tommy Knight). John Tiffany conjures up a carefully measured and superbly acted production, energising the dry but necessary discussions of detailed cuts with expressionist physical movement. Thorne could easily have made this a simple exercise in Tory bashing, but he has the wisdom to remember from whom the Coalition Government inherited economic chaos and, whilst his characters may call Cameron a ****, they are at least as disdainful of Ed (without specifying which one). Indeed, the play’s keynote speech, spoken by retired council leader George (the splendid Tom Georgeson), sounds like a eulogy for Britain’s deceased labour movement. In depicting a conundrum to which there is no solution, Thorne could well have called his play “Hopeless”, but then he tags on a wonderful final scene. Elderly George and young Jake sit together on a park bench discussing Dickens’ Great Expectations and, as the conversation develops, the simple optimism of youth overpowers the tired cynicism of age and the chosen title now seems perfect. It is late enough in 2014 to be able to say with reasonable confidence that Hope is one of the best new plays of the year.
Performance date: 3 December 2014