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What's On Stage: How designing James Graham's latest political play was a labour of love

You could be forgiven for mistaking Labour of Love for a small political play set in one room. However, the challenge of designing the show lies within its structure. Set in a North Nottinghamshire constituency office and spanning the last 27 years; the play travels back in time throughout the first act, then forward in the second, revisiting the same scenes.

My first conversation with the director, Jeremy Herrin, pointed to having multiple versions of the office in order to move fluently between scenes. I wanted to create a set that could change over time tracking the journey of the Labour party as well as the relationship between David Lyons (Martin Freeman) the local Member of Parliament and his constituency agent Jean Whittaker (Tamsin Greig). The set would need to alter over the course of the play, as would the actors' appearances using costumes and wigs to subtly transform them and chart the passage of time.

I don't believe that a design should ever override the text or distract the audience from the play. The job of a theatre designer, in my opinion, is to serve the script and the intentions of the writer. In this case, what unlocked the play for me was the discovery that James Graham had written about palindromes and mirror poems. Jean defines a palindrome, "the same word one way as it is the other" and a mirror poem, "What means one thing one way and the opposite the other."

The set requires a stealthy stage management team to redress the backstage side of the revolve during the preceding scene

Could there be two identical offices mirrored on a revolve that could alternate between scenes? A set that could rotate and be the same "one way as it is the other." Could it also turn in two directions to signify "one thing one way and the opposite the other," backwards and forwards in time?

Whilst this became the solution to the fluid running of the play, it would require a stealthy stage management team to redress the backstage side of the revolve during the preceding scene. Props supervisor Lisa Buckley rose to the challenge of finding doubles of the office furniture as anything appearing in more than one year would need to be on both sides of the revolve. The show also features a dancing snowman that activates at the sound of a handclap, as well as a functioning 1980s fax machine supported by an evocative sound effect from Paul Arditti.

Designing this play was, unsurprisingly, a labour of love

Between the first scenes of the play the revolve moves are hidden by a screen onto which Duncan McLean projects political footage. These transitions are gradually revealed through a gauze giving the office a ghostly presence until the final scene. For the first time the mechanics of the set are exposed to the audience. As the play rewinds back to the cliffhanging ending of the opening scene, the revolve spins to the sound of David Bowie's "Under Pressure", delivering David and his wife, Elizabeth (Rachael Stirling), back to the front of the stage recreating the last image from act one scene one, silhouetted by the light of Neil Austin's practical lamps.

Designing this play was, unsurprisingly, a labour of love.

Labour of Love runs at the Noel Coward Theatre until 2 December.


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