An assemblage of intrigue and counter-intrigue, cheating and counter cheating, insurgency and counter-insurgency is set not in some fictional John Le Carré-inspired diegesis but in our very own Mother of Parliaments, the House of Commons.
This is not “political theatre” of the idealogical kind as no side is taken, no agenda pushed by the excellent playwright James Graham, it is more a political history of the realpolitik of the nineteen-seventies. This House is a wonderful dramatic research document, painstakingly put together by Graham, chronicling the momentous events of 1974-1979. The events are real, though inevitably much of the dialogue is imagined, but This House gives us an invaluable insight into the way government works set in one of the most tumultuous periods in political history which was marked by a paralysis of government that paved the way for the strong, strident and ultimately unforgiving tenure of Number Ten by Margaret Thatcher.
So, yes, Graham takes a few liberties and no-one can know all the conversations, discussions and asides that are a feature of whipping operations in parliament but with his meticulous research we have in This House an as-near-to-accurate version of events as we can get. And that is an invaluable asset as we can use it as a mirror to hold up against the latest tumultuous events of our current political scene.
The play started life at the National Theatre, retaining here at the Garrick its director and some of the original cast. There is some excellent ensemble playing with key moments punctuated by movement sequences (choreographed by Scott Ambler) that depict the hustle and bustle, the to-and-fro, the daily tug-of-war of parliament, the macho posturing and the all-but-fisticuffs approach of the more demonstrative Members from both sides of the House. This is accompanied by a bluesy-punkish-retro band, ensconced in the gallery, that, through Stephen Warbeck’s pugnacious score, captures the mood of the time effectively.
We have the key moments that have left their indelible mark on the political scene – so many in such a short space of time that one comes away thinking did all that really happen in the space of five years? There is David-Ickeish fraudster and Lord Lucan-like disappearer John Stonehouse, who’s absence reduces Labour’s slender majority; there is Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe, with his alleged dog-slaying involvement in court for conspiracy to murder; there is the extraordinary spectacle of the “halt and the lame”, as the Daily Mail categorised it, being wheeled into the chamber complete with oxygen mask in one case to vote to keep various pieces of legislation alive and stave off votes of no confidence in the government.
And imperiously, majestically, swooping Tarzan-like from his rarefied millionaire’s eyrie, is future dog-strangler (what is this politico-fetish with killing dogs?) and squirrel exterminator Michael Heseltine, long blond locks flowing as he grabs the Mace and swings it menacingly towards the government benches. Oh, what times, what japes, what drama. Nowadays all we get is spread-sheet Phil and an Opposition who seem to think whipping is the art of whisking cream: oh how much could Corbyn’s Band of Brothers learn from watching this play!
Phil Daniels takes the eye as Labour Chief Whip Bob Mellish and he has a great foil on the Conservative side with Malcolm Sinclair as Humphrey Atkins.
Their respective teams of Whips – Steffan Rhodri, Kevin Doyle, David Hounslow and Lauren O’Neil for Labour and Nathaniel Parker and Ed Hughes for Conservative – are diligently detailed in their portrayals of shenanigan-ridden power-behind- the-scenes black ops units who either enable or wreck the business of the House, blocking or unblocking the “usual channels” depending on events, dear boy, events.
The Labour group is suitably earthy, sweary and northern in their approach to oiling the wheels of government whilst the Tory group are posh, affected and snooty, not just about their opponents but about the fact that a grocer’s daughter, (yes, a grocer’s daughter!) has been elected to lead their beloved toffee-nosed party supported by, of all things, an egg-and-chips fancier from Chingford. Chief amongst these is the Member for Chelmsford, Norman St John-Stevas, the flamboyant and effete Latin-quoter played with scene-stealing effect by Matthew Pigeon, who encompasses the dictum that Conservatives believe they are destined to govern and born to rule.
The use of The Speaker (Giles Taylor as Selwyn Lloyd in Act 1, Orlando Wells as George Thomas in Act 2) as a kind of MC, introducing members by their constituency, is an inspired idea and helps maintain the rattling pace of the piece as well as assisting the audience with identification. Designer Rae Smith’s set cleverly combines the Chamber with the whip’s offices delineated by Paul Constable’s split lighting design and we have the apparition of the corridor behind the Speaker’s Chair morphing into a smoke-filled Hades as various Members find the strain too much and head to that place way beyond the Chiltern Hundreds: seventeen MP deaths in that one parliament – a rather gob-smacking record.
So we have a funny, strange, disconcerting and at times stupefying play that is about semi-fictional people who ran our country back in the ’seventies though if truth be told there’s not a lot of difference between them and the funny, strange, disconcerting and at times stupefying semi-fictional people who run our country today. And that, like This House, is what democracy is all about.
Review by Peter Yates
Is a political revolution coming? Will the Labour Party collapse? Can the kingdom stay united?
It’s 1974. And Westminster is about to go to war with itself. Set in the engine rooms of the House of Commons, James Graham’s This House dives deep into the secret world of the Whips who roll up their sleeves and go to often farcical lengths to influence an unruly chorus of MPs within the Mother of all Parliaments.
In an era of chaos, both hilarious and shocking, fist fights break out in the parliamentary bars, high-stake tricks and games are played, while sick or dying MPs are carried through the lobby to register their crucial votes as the government hangs by a thread.
Premiered to universal acclaim at the National Theatre in 2012, This House written by James Graham (The Vote, Privacy) and directed by Headlong Artistic Director Jeremy Herrin (People, Places and Things, Wolf Hall), gives us a timely, moving and often amusing insight into the workings of British politics.
Running Time: 2 Hours 55 Minutes
Age Restrictions: Suitable for ages 14+
Show Opened: 19th Nov 2016
Booking Until: 25th Feb 2017