Theatre Review: The Absence of War

This revival of David Hare’s play loosely based on the 1992 General Election sees Sheffield Labour MP and party leader George Jones as channelling Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband in similar measure. As in 1992 the country is emerging from recession, and the voters perhaps do not feel rich enough to afford a Labour government yet.


Much hinges on whether Jones should stay in the controlled message straitjacket (out-Torying the Tories), at the expense of being boring, or let rip with his natural charisma at the risk of descending into incoherent waffling. There’s much to recognise here, but also much that has moved on. Beneath the surface of the carefully controlled messaging, is the Labour Party once again dangerously left-wing? Who can tell? Is the 35% strategy the worst of both worlds in being a cautious straightjacket that doesn’t pitch to the centre.

This being the sort of thing bound to attract a largely Labour supporting audience – David Blunkett was there when I was, and I quizzed one Labour councillor during the interval on parallels with A Very British Coup – revealing I thought was the palpably nervous laughter at the line “The Tories ditch their leaders when it looks like they might lose – we hang on to ours”.

But I thought most revealing was that despite the clear self-belief within Labour that is portrayed: “The only practical instrument that exists in this country for changing people’s lives for the good.” – That the Conservatives have it easy serving money, where we serve justice – … there was no political ideology to justify this sanctimonious exceptionalism. Any party could say similar things and probably make a better case for them. This is revealed most tellingly when [spoilers!] George, switching to the self-belief strategy, goes off script, starts strongly railing against injustice, and agonisingly collapses into inarticulate repetition.

It’s not enough to be for equality, and it is not even enough to be for equality because you are the people who used to believe in socialism, or have an emotional affection for socialism. Either socialism would be right (it wouldn’t) and you should advocate it, or if you accept that it would be wrong, find a better philosophy and oppose socialism. You can’t build a coherent political movement on a compromise between these two positions.

See also reviews in the Indepndent, Telegraph and Financial Times.

The Absence of War is on at the Crucible in Sheffield until Saturday 21st February. Come for the day and campaign with us beforehand.

* Joe Otten was the candidate for Sheffield Heeley in June 2017, is a councillor in Sheffield and is Tuesday editor of Liberal Democrat Voice.

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10 Comments

  • Richard Shaw 16th Feb '15 - 12:35pm

    I went to the press night last Wednesday and thought it was a brilliantly staged play with excellent performers. The attention to detail in the props and effects, from the circa 1991 laptops to the costumes and the TVs showing 1992 CeeFax news (including the weather forecasts) made for a very atmospheric and immersive experience. I also had the fun of playing people-spotter, picking out audience members like Len Tingle, Quentin Letts, random councillors and, most notably, Roy Hattersley.

  • A good idea to have a theatre review. I look forward to more in LDV.

    As for the 1992 general election I am not so sure of the parallels. In terms of the 22 MPs elected it was the worst result for this party since 1979 and worse than any subsequent general election.

    Liberal Alliance / Liberal Democrat MPs elected —
    1992…..22
    1997…..46
    2001…..52
    2005…..62
    2010…..57
    2015…..

  • Tsar Nicolas 16th Feb '15 - 6:52pm

    The country is emerging from recession?

    Balderdash!

    If the economy is emerging from recession please explain the stunning crash in oil prices, the drop in prices of key economic commodities like copper and iron ore, and the fact that the measure of shipping volumes – the Baltic Dry Index – is hovering around its lowest ever level.

  • Tsar Nicolas 17th Feb '15 - 7:06am

    So we are not part of the world economy?

  • Are recessions caused by drops in the prices of raw materials (genuine question – my gloabal economics isn’t that strong but the instances I can think of aare ones caused by oil price shocks with the price going up).

    On topic – I saw this as a TV adaptation with John Thaw and was fairly underwhelmed so never really rated it. Maybe a different production would impress me more 🙂

  • ‘The Absence of War’ is a joint production with Rose Theatre Kingston, where it can be seen from 14th to 21st April. So if you missed it in Sheffield why not come along to Kingston and combine the trip with help for Ed Davey’s election campaign, or for Robin Meltzer in Richmond Park.

    It will be a great opportunity to see our wonderful theatre, which was largely a Lib Dem initiative. I’m sure we can offer accommodation for anyone offering to campaign.

  • Sorry, that should be 14th to 25th

  • “….a great opportunity to see our wonderful theatre, which was largely a Lib Dem initiative….”

    Yes indeed. 🙂
    Achieved in the teeth of Tory opposition over decades.

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