I’m Not Running satisfies all the basic criteria of a play – sometimes impressively so. The writer, Oscar-nominated, BAFTA- and Olivier-award-winning knight Sir David Hare, seems to have compiled his latest work by mechanically following instructions from some 1980s playwriting textbook. It has characters, a plot, themes, conflicts, flashbacks, ‘witty’ wordplay – it’s even got the requisite dose of feminism, if you can call it that. Sadly, the result of this rigorous adherence is a play without warmth or humour; a satire with more eye-rolling than genuine laughs; a tangled mess of implausible characters and even more implausible relationships – and absolutely nothing bold, radical, or creative.  

Sometimes it can feel like an exercise in box-ticking: there’s the strong female lead (Pauline Gibson, played by Siân Brooke), the young, “diverse”, politically engaged youth (Meredith Ikeji, played by Amaka Okafor), and a thrown-in conversation about a current feminist talking point (in this case, Female Genital Mutilation). But the FGM conversation fails to interact with the rest of the play, and even dips into the dangerously light-hearted; Meredith is taken out of the plot barely minutes after she begins to contribute something interesting; and Pauline is fundamentally defined by her relationship to another, male, politician. Hare’s feminism is tired and skin-deep.

The same could be said for much of the politics in this play. The depicted Labour Party is more Milliband than Corbyn; this political sphere defined by TV interviews and fag-break dealings, not social media and mobile phones. We’re introduced to Gibson as a wildly popular, radical politician but as the play drags on it’s difficult to see why: she lacks charisma and character and struggles to make convincing arguments for even the most sympathetic of causes. Hare’s characterisation of the radical versus the establishment is one of emotion versus efficiency, and it belies his poor grasp of the moment.

The text is not exactly rescued by its production, which struggles clumsily throughout its 2 hour 40 runtime. Currently running on the same Lyttelton stage is The Lehman Trilogy, but the two could not stand in starker contrast: where the Lehman actors owned and inhabited the stage, Brooke and co. fought and drowned in it; where Es Devlin gave us a revolving box of shimmering glass, Ralph Myers placed a dull white cube; where the former screened swirling New York skylines, the latter projected static TV.

Then, for all, it’s thematic confusion and vapid politics, the final scene suddenly began to fire off some genuine talking points. Does Labour’s repeated failure to elect a female leader point at hidden, systematic prejudices? There’s a question that could have been asked two hours earlier. Alex Hassel’s cartoonish Labour scion Jack Gould even elicits some genuine laughter from me – perhaps only because by this point, I’ve given up on taking the play seriously.

“What I’ve always wanted,” Hare says in an interview with The Times, “is to be ahead of the curve”. For people to say ‘… that is exactly what my life is like now.’ ” Nothing about I’m Not Running strides boldly ahead, either in form or in content – it’s a play that would feel more at home in 2008 than 2018. Hare’s writing reeks of a playwright playing catch-up with politics that is moving faster than he is.


I’m Not Running plays on the Lyttleton Stage at the National Theatre until the 31st January. The final performance will be broadcast by NTLive.

Theatre Editor
Matt has just finished four years of mathematics at University College London, and is now taking the logical next step of pursuing a career in theatre. As well as an avid critic, he is a passionate director and playwright, with work produced at the VAULT Festival, Camden People's Theatre, and The Shaw.

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