- Category: Reviews
- Published on Thursday, 27 November 2014
- Written by Stuart King
The day before I saw 'Hope', a new play about a council making deep cuts in services, I read a profile piece in the Guardian on the Labour leader of Newcastle Council, Nick Forbes. He talked in the interview about the "impossible" service cuts the council faced because of the government's funding cuts.
He said in just one area, social care, Whitehall grants had been cut by 32% while demand had increased by 40%. Having cut £37 million from the budget last year, Newcastle faces a £38 million cut this year, with a further £90 million cuts in the pipeline over the following three years! Little wonder that Forbes predicts social unrest with many public services becoming “completely untenable” in the years ahead. And Newcastle is not alone, the National Audit Office has recently predicted that more than half the councils in England are at risk of financial failure in the next five years.
Jack Thorne’s play, set in a northern English town, opens with the local Labour council leaders sitting down facing just such a scenario. But as with Nick Forbes it never enters the heads of Hillary, the council leader, or her deputy Mark, that there is any alternative to implementing the cuts. They settle down to picking the areas; libraries, street lighting, the swimming pool, museum, centres for the disabled, which they will cut or close completely.
But their plans quickly come unstuck. The proposal to shut the social centre for the disabled, run by Mark’s ex-wife Gina, is leaked and all hell breaks loose. An imaginative campaign to prevent the closure hits the national headlines, thousands sign a petition against it and Miliband is on the phone telling the council they are “polluting Labour’s message” for the election.
So they do what every council does when faced with serious resistance in one area, they retreat on the disabled centre and instead cut two SureStart centres in a predominantly Pakistani and Bangladeshi area of the borough. The resulting row and protests sees clashes between the EDL and the local protesting Asian community. A Pakistani shopkeeper is stabbed to death late at night. “Were the perpetrators white – EDL?” asks Mark. “We don’t know,” replies Sarwan, an Asian councillor, “It was where we had turned the lights off.”
The play follows the characters through both their political and personal crises. Mark, played by The Thick of It actor Paul Higgins, wants to be “a good man” and struggles with his alcoholism, his precociously intelligent son and his sometime partner who is also a councillor and daughter of the ex-leader. The play sometimes feels like a sitcom and makes you wonder why TV hasn’t taken up the challenge of a council-based sitcom; there is plenty of black comedy there for the taking.
The plot takes a dramatic turn when the councillors, pressed by Sarwan, revolt and decide to refuse to set a budget, provoking the government to send in an administrator. Sarwan is convincing when pointing out the class nature of the Tory-Lib Dem cuts “Hart council in Hampshire, the least deprived local authority – net loss of these cuts £28 per person – while in Liverpool district B, the most deprived local authority – net loss £807 per person. How does that make you not want to tear some ones throat out?” Indeed, because this is not just a script but real figures.
While this play is not a political drama of the standard of a David Hare, it certainly is a play of the moment, something the Royal Court Theatre is particularly good at, encouraging young writers and multi-ethnic casts, and pulling in young audiences absent in most West End theatres.
But don’t get your hopes up for a happy ending. These councillors turn out to be as useless in opposition as they were in power. Incapable of mobilising the town and obsessed with returning to “business as normal”. But why should we expect anything different – isn’t this the reality of the Labour Party today?
'Hope' runs at the Royal Court from 26 November to 10 January