“We live in the age of cutting cunts,” deputy Council leader Mark (Paul Higgins) announces near the start of Jack Thorne's new, highly topical comedy about the swingeing public sector spending cuts this country has suffered since the Tories – sorry, the Coalition government – came to power in 2010. Mark's X-rated language is worthy of that most memorable satirical political character of recent years, Malcolm Tucker, and where TV's The Thick Of It hilariously shone its searchlight on shenanigans behind the scenes of the national political stage, Hope does so at local council level.
Thanks to George Osborne and David Cameron (and Nick Clegg), councillors at this particular working-class town somewhere in Britain must cut their budget by £22 million. But where? Should they slash day centres for learning disabled people or old people's homes? Shut services at the library, swimming pool or city farm? And switch off street lighting when it's still dark to save pennies? Inevitably, the debates and bickerings that ensue from councillors' competing vested interests provide a rich seam of comic potential for a writer of Thorne's still-emerging, and very great, talents. But because the injustices are so real and self-evident, many of the jokes don't fly, and John Tiffany's direction is slow, perhaps to give audiences time to ponder the serious points being made. The action often stalls.
A welcome jolt against this trend comes when Council leader Hilary (Stella Gonet), who appears to relish taking a tough stance and acting out her Maggie Thatcher fantasies, gets her amusingly unexpected comeuppance for “pissing all over us.” Against this background of cuts and comedy, a love intrigue subplot involving Mark, his ex Gina (Christine Entwisle) and colleague Julie (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) is treated perfunctorily and comes across as dull. Mark's too-clever-for-his-own-boots teenage son has a few funny lines, ably delivered by Tommy Knight, but is another irritant.
Three standout features can't quite redeem this disappointing experience, by the Royal Court's standards. Jo Eastwood gives a heart-rendingly warm performance as Laura, a learning disabled 'service user' (to use council terminology), whose impassioned plea – “please don't shut my day centre” – brings tears to the eyes. Then there's Tom Scutt's utterly convincing re-creation of a 1920s-era Council hall, with its V-shaped parquet flooring, faded turquoise curtains hanging from the proscenium arch, horrible fluorescent strip lighting, tatty desks on wheels and battered plastic chairs.
Finally, I would have loved to see more of the superb Tom Georgeson as 70-something George, a former Labour Council leader himself in the militant 1970s when the firebrand battles were “red versus red.” He has interesting things to say about how the world as he sees it has sold out. His message to Ed Miliband ahead of 2015's General Election? “We, the Labour Party...don't really have the believers any more.” It's during George's scenes of hope-less polemic that Hope operates at its best.