David Hare’s latest production at the National Theatre is one full of ambition. The play revolves around Pauline Gibson (Siân Brooke), an independent MP and NHS campaigner, and her decision to run for the Labour leadership. If she decides to, however, she will be up against her ex-boyfriend from university, Jack Gould (Alex Hassell). We follow the pair back and forth as their lives – and more significantly ambitions – intersect over the 20 odd years since their break-up. Pauline becomes a doctor and campaigns to save her Corby hospital, and having become a national icon, is elected as an MP. Meanwhile Jack takes a conventional career politician route from lawyer to Labour MP, striving for a hopeful leadership -– until media attention on Pauline upends his plans.
But, it is not just Hare’s characters that are ambitious. Much like his latest work – 2018’s state-of-the-nation TV drama Collateral – the performance skims through a range of social issues, with the occasional moral speech thrown in for good measure (in this case a notably excessive one given early on from Pauline about FGM). Disappointingly though, he only briefly touches on NHS issues, such as Nationalisation, mainly turning them into fodder for Pauline’s press sound-bites.
He does, however, serve astute observations about modern politics. Many are dealt as witty one-liners: “Why is the Labour Party on the wrong side of every argument?”, and “The Labour Party is not interested in votes – it’s interested in process.” Nevertheless Hare also highlights what he sees as a “deeply misogynistic” Labour party (revealed in the interval interview broadcasted) that has failed, despite its progressive presentation, to have ever elected a female leader. Yet, more interesting than Pauline’s gender, is that she is a single-issue politician. Jack scoffs at Pauline for having no sense of the party’s identity or tradition, but given the recent successes of anti-establishment politicians, Pauline may well fit the current political climate. That is, whether a single-issue politician can evolve successfully into leader material.
Unfortunately, the play is weighed down by the two central characters and we receive little reasoning as to why either wants to become leader. Pauline and Jack’s relationship feels hollow and shows no development. Instead we are treated to a series of contrived conversations in which they struggle to discuss little more than each other’s selfishness. Sandy (Joshua McGuire), Pauline’s former patient and spin doctor, provides some much-needed comic relief between the verbal sparring. But what genre this fits into remains confusing – possibly a sort of domestic drama meets political satire. One featuring a comic Hugh Laurie look-alike for Jack: depressingly caricatured as a self-absorbed bigot with an ego to fill following his legendary father. Pauline herself is little better. Still, Brooke brings sincerity to the role where she can, specifically working excellently with Pauline’s manipulative, alcoholic mother (Liza Sadovy). But is it too easy to sympathise with her metaphorical ‘running’ from her challenging past?
The play is unable to fulfil its ambitions; despite Hare seeing himself as writing ahead of time, I’m Not Running lacks any political revelation. It merely ponders over Labour’s age-old issue of ideology: old vs new, pragmatism vs idealism, establishment vs populism. Hopefully his next play – revealed to be on the Conservative party – will delve deeper.