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Pastimes: To the theatre with Margaret Hodge

Stratford East Theatre Royal (Credit: Roger Cracknell 01/classic / Alamy Stock Photo)

4 min read

In her occasional series, Rosamund Urwin meets up with parliamentarians to discuss how they unwind away from Westminster. Here, Margaret Hodge takes her to the theatre

Margaret Hodge is a dream theatre companion – she has an encyclopaedic knowledge of plays, is a tough but fair critic, and makes time for a drink in the bar. The Labour MP for Barking, who is chair of the Theatre Royal Stratford East in London, has taken me to the press night of How Not To Drown, about a boy who comes to the United Kingdom seeking asylum. She is more interested in my opinion than hers: “Did you enjoy it?” she asks three times (I did). “I thought it was powerful.”

Hodge, 78, is stepping down at the next general election, having first joined the Commons in 1994 and prior to that had been a council leader in Islington. Stratford East will be part of a post-parliamentary portfolio of roles, and she also plans to write a book (about whether the world has got better in her 50 years in politics) and to travel more.

I always jokingly say that politicians are failed actors because we have to perform

Hodge describes being chair of the theatre as “an absolute dream”. She wanted to be an actor as a child, attending a drama club in South London. In her teenage years, she went to the theatre with a school friend, paying “one and six pence” to sit in the heavens at The Old Vic and watch Laurence Olivier perform.

“I always jokingly say that politicians are failed actors because we have to perform,” she says. “And theatre provokes: it can challenge thinking in a way we can’t always in the political sphere.”

Hodge was approached five years ago about the Stratford East role by the previous chair, the former director-general of the BBC, Lord Hall, but then got the job in a competitive process. She was already a fan of the theatre, praising it during her time as a culture and tourism minister in the last Labour government for championing diversity. Her job has been partly to find philanthropists to help fund it.

The theatre has had big successes under Hodge and its new artistic director Nadia Fall, from Equus in 2019, which transferred to the West End, to Lenny Henry performing in King Hedley II in the same year. “It was an eclectic offer which started to bring in bigger audiences,” she says. “Nadia has an eye for cutting edge theatre. We’ve been turning it into the place to go again.”

Then the pandemic struck in 2020. “It’s been awful,” she admits. “Part of the problem is that audiences are going to the bigger shows now – Noises Off or the big musicals. We’re so strapped for money that we can only put on plays with a small cast.”

She criticises the government and the Arts Council for a “crass” approach to levelling up, which saw funding withdrawn from London last year. “You don’t level up by levelling down,” she says. “All that will then happen is that a lot of the cutting edge, challenging plays won’t be made, because they’ll go for the commercial.

You could level up by encouraging more touring, but they have killed touring with their funding cuts. London’s strength is creativity and the government doesn’t recognise that that is a benefit for the whole country.”

A mother of four and grandmother of 12, her personal hope is to pass on her love of theatre. At Christmas, she took her youngest grandchild, Orli, who is three, to see the panto at Stratford East, during which the toddler was thrilled to get a mention from the actors. “I’m always looking for something to take the kids to,” she says. “Seeing their faces light up is the ultimate joy.”

Rosamund Urwin is a journalist with The Sunday Times

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