THEATRE / Gatecrashing the newest model party: After God and the Law, David Hare has now put the Labour Party on stage. Gerald Kaufman votes on the new play's political correctness

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The Independent Culture
DAVID HARE played a more prominent role than I did in Labour's general election campaign last year. He was given total access not only to public events and press conferences but to private briefing sessions as well. How has The Absence of War, his new play about Labour Party politics, benefited from this experience?

Some things Hare has simply got wrong. Mention by a Labour official of a trip he has made to Kidderminster, in preparation for a campaigning visit by the leader, is nonsense. No Labour leader would waste a minute in unwinnable Kidderminster. Likewise the real Shadow Chancellor would never need to complain that the party leader spends too much time in the Commons tea-room with his personal staff: MPs' staff are not allowed in.

On the other hand, while staff as well as MPs are admitted to the Central Lobby (as indeed is everybody), leading politicians would certainly not conduct private discussions there.

Bob Crowley, the designer, has, however, created an excellent facsimile of the lobby, and there is utter veracity in the long, wailing cry of the policeman announcing the arrival of the Speaker. The reproduction of the Commons chamber is equally faithful, so much so that I was almost tempted to intervene in the debate.

Other ingredients of the play are so accurate as to be positively gruesome. Hare's depiction of the manifesto launch, with a line-up of senior MPs marshalled and awaiting the go-ahead to proceed on to the platform, reminded me painfully of all too many such events at the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre in Westminster. One participant, a cantankerous Labour veteran called 'flaming Vera' (Maria Charles) is a perhaps unfair but decidedly recognisable caricature of Barbara Castle.

Hare gives leading roles to two prominent members of the Shadow Cabinet. Neither the folksy Welsh deputy leader Bryden Thomas (Michael Bryant), nor the pompous Shadow Chancellor 'absolutely groaning with gravitas', Malcolm Pryce (Richard Pasco), bears the slightest resemblance to Roy Hattersley or John Smith.

Of the leader's staff (toiling away in an office much too tidy to be a reliable reproduction), two women members seem to be modelled on real-life counterparts. Lindsay Fontaine (Clare Higgins), with a touching faith in opinion polls, is strongly reminiscent of Patricia Hewitt, whom some people unfairly believe played an over-prominent part in last year's campaign. Mary Housego (Saskia Wickham) is, in dress, appearance and manner, a dead-ringer for Neil Kinnock's press and TV aide Julie Hall: blonde, pretty, with-it, always in a hurry, and totally dedicated to her job and her boss.

And what about her boss? John Thaw as George Jones may have a cockney rather than a Welsh accent, and profuse white rather than thinning ginger hair, but the role he plays is clearly that of Neil Kinnock.

Hare obviously likes Kinnock. Jones is a very attractive character - decent, good- natured, ebullient, and humorous. He may be verbose - there are countless references to his windbag traits - yet it seems that Hare would prefer Jones-Kinnock to be a sincere windbag rather than an ersatz politician straitjacketed in packaging designed by market researchers.

The character created by Hare is packaged unwillingly, his nannying staff desperate to prevent him from being himself. Yet nobody controlled or programmed Kinnock. He very deliberately packaged himself.

The fictional Labour leader in this play possesses Kinnock's softer virtues but not his tougher ones: the determination, even ruthlessness, that made him formidable enough to force through the refashioning of the Labour Party to which Hare refers frequently and with apparent repugnance.

There comes a moment in The Absence of War when, in a private gathering, Jones breaks free and says what he really thinks, rather than what he feels he ought to say for public consumption. The impression Hare gives is that, if only Jones-Kinnock had said such things in public, his sincerity could have swept Labour to victory instead of the defeat with which this play ends. The problem is that the sentiments stuffed into Jones's mouth - Hare's own opinions, perhaps? - are exactly the kind of rubbish spoken in the 1983 election campaign and which brought about the worst Labour defeat of the century.

Gerald Kaufman, MP, is chairman of the National Heritage Select Committee

(Photographs omitted)

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