Friday 30 November 2018

I'm Not Running, The National Theatre, the Southbank, Central London

Images from the National Theatre web site

For a contemporary play about the tense and multi-layered world of British politics, I'm Not Running is too slow, laid back, disjointed and detached from real world events, which right now are more absorbing and profound than the fictional events covered in David Hare's new play. His focus on the NHS and healthcare seems narrow and dated, given this play was written in the era of Brexit, nationalism, Trump and Corbyn. Even the staff shortages in the NHS, which are being exacerbated by Brexit, don't warrant a mention, while the collapse of the political centre, the civil war in the Tory Party and the battle for the soul of the Labour Party are also ignored. In an apt metaphor for the script, the set, which is basically two revolving walls and some furniture, fails to fill the expansive stage of the Lyttelton Theatre.

Images from National Theatre web site

Jumping back and forth in time, I'm not Running depicts a couple of decades in the life of Pauline Gibson, the product of a broken home who becomes a medic and ultimately an independent single-issue politician. With an idealistic streak, combined with something of a high-pitched voice and a strange bravado, Gibson can come across as a wilful teenager, making it difficult to empathise with her. Central to the plot, her dysfunctional sexual relationship with Jack Gould, a career politician, doesn't seem that convincing - at university, he appears to be quite a pitiful character.  Despite her tough upbringing, it is not really clear why Gibson, or Gould, for that matter, decides to plunge into the brutal and baffling world of politics - neither of them appear to have the necessary patience or cunning. Moreover, the sudden death of his parliamentary researcher from a rare medical condition feels like an odd plot contrivance designed to bring the two main protagonists to the same place at the same time.

Whimsically, Gibson sets aside all her medical training to try and save a single hospital.  She smokes, while ridiculing an early morning runner for being obsessed with himself. Oddly, Hare seems to be giving the finger to the notion that people need to take greater responsibility for their own health if the NHS is to be sustainable. Meanwhile, middle class Gould seems most interested in an easy, comfortable life, making it hard to believe he is fighting tooth and nail to lead the Labour Party. The most engaging character is Gibson's press officer, who manages to seem both world-weary and cheerful at the same time. His wry smiles and comic timing give the play a much-needed edge. And there are some memorable lines, which ring true, such as: "We weren't poor, we were broke: it's a question of attitude," and "the Labour Party isn't interested in votes."

Still,  I'm Not Running abjectly fails to exploit the dramatic potential of both the Lyttelton Theatre and the extraordinary political narrative of our times. 6/10