Hope, Royal Court, review: a play about spending cuts that dodges gloominess

Jack Thorne's timely play reveals the impossible task facing local councils

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The Independent Culture

Hope presents an impossible task. A Labour council in an unamed working class town must cut £22million. There’s a cap on tax, and they’ve shut the urban farm; now they must slash care for the young, the elderly or the disabled… which proves a deeply personal, as well as political, decision in Jack Thorne’s timely play. Everyone knows someone affected - everyone has their own special pleading.

Thorne also astutely teases out how, if mobilised, special pleading can set the political agenda. When closing a day centre for the disabled is proposed, a march of service users whips up Twitter support and a one-click petition has Ed Miliband threatening to disown the council. Post-Thornberry, this hardly seems far-fetched.

The council u-turns, but that means cutting SureStart in Muslim areas, which soon brings its own issues…. Anger builds at this unsolvable budget, and Hope offers a moment of revolution - what if you stand up to the coalition, refuse to make the cuts? Solidarity! But Thorne (despite being a Labour party member) even-handedly conveys a sense that saying ‘no’ might just be another way to pass the buck. Their own form of special pleading.

If it sounds gloomy, Hope is actually hugely enjoyable. Discursive rather than didactic, Thorne’s writing exhibits the sparky, easy idiom he’s nailed in TV programmes from Skins to This is England. He embeds satire in naturalism, cheeky laughs in social awkwardness.

The cast manage to remain light and airy in their portrayals of stressed-out, downtrodden councillors - although under John Tiffany’s direction, there are pace-dropping scene changes: slow, with portentous musical accompaniment and dreamily odd exercise routines. In Thorne and Tiffany's previous collaboration, Let the Right One In, seemingly mannered movement built up with real power; here it just makes things unnecessarily treacly.

The pained presence of Paul Higgins as Mark, the deputy council leader, inevitably recalls The Thick of It, and his crumpled desperation and ineffectual idealism is pin-pointed between tragedy and comedy. Washily weak, he still has his conscience.

For Hope presents a hopeful picture about intentions, at least: hearts are all in the right place… The play even ends with an encounter between an old-school Red (scene-stealing Tom Georgeson) and Mark’s son Jake (Tommy Knight), discussing Great Expectations; they agree that the “point” - of the book and life itself - is to at least try.

Are good intentions and great expectations enough? Despite enjoying the evening, I left feeling slightly underwhelmed, and concluded Hope might be too cushioned, with its romantic tyings-up and optimistic next generation, lacking bite.

But maybe that’s not really a failing - we get the play for our times. And Hope does brilliantly show up both the vacillating, bow-to-pressure toothlessness of the current left, and the weighed-down weariness of good people struggling to make the smallest change. If the play isn’t more galvanising, perhaps it’s because that’s the impossible task. All it may do is reflect the muddied mess we’re in. And try to hold on to a little hope.