Politics and rock music isn’t a combination you’d expect to find in the House of Commons, but, in James Graham’s This House, they co-exist like parliamentary meetings and the ceremonial mace.
Beginning in the tumultuous period of British politics at the end of Edward Heath’s Prime Ministerial reign and ending with the no-confidence vote of 1979, This House charts the five years in-between, as Labour struggles to stay above water with its wafer-thin majority over the Tories.
Every vote counts and, as members of the audience, who have bought tickets allowing them to line the House of Commons’ famous green benches, are swayed left and right by the Olivier theatre’s revolving stage, the opposing teams of whips try to garner support for their parties, with Members of both Houses – in varying degrees of health – being bribed, dragged and nodded-through in order to register their votes.
The two parties certainly have their differences. The vast gulf between Phil Daniels’ cursing, Cockney Labour chief whip and Charles Edwards’ eloquent Tory is as wide as the River Thames seen rippling through the iconic clock face that towers over Rae Smith’s Commons set.
Informative or patronising, Graham provides Politics For Dummies-like descriptions of the world within Westminster, as his characters explain parliamentary systems and traditions, record votes on a blackboard and provide witty and blunt explanations such as “we’re all up shit creek” in order to make the play’s subject matter accessible to everyone.
Though fictional, This House is based on real events and, throughout the two hours and 50 minutes of Jeremy Herrin’s production – which features uplifting outbursts of live music and choreography giving the play a musical vibe – we see a number of historical re-enactments, from the seizing of the mace that gained Michael Heseltine his nickname to the actions of fraudulent John Stonehouse who faked his own death.
The flawless cast does well to bring the backstage proceedings of Parliament to life. Edwards, well-equipped to look after the nation’s political interests following his starring role in The King’s Speech, brings graciousness and generosity of spirit to the role of Jack Weatherill, Lauren O’Neil stands out as a woman trying to assert herself in a male-dominated space, Reece Dinsdale swears his way through the show as determined Yorkshireman Walter Harrison, and Vincent Franklin’s Michael Cocks adds a significant helping of humour with his hysterical rants.
While This House’s move to the Olivier theatre, following its successful run in the Cottesloe last year, has brought Graham’s tale to a much larger audience, thousands more will be able to view the behind-the-scenes action of 1970s Westminster when it is broadcast to cinemas worldwide on 16 May as part of NT Live.
Previous review from the Cottesloe theatre, by Phil Hooks
If you’re one of those types who claims to find British politics boring, This House might be the show that compels you to cross the floor. In James Graham’s new play at the National Theatre, the tumultuous parliament of the 1970s is perfectly theatrically crystallised, and it’s more tense, exciting and complex a game than any Olympic sporting event.
If you are indeed one of those people you may have stopped reading by now, but fear not. Prior knowledge of the ins and outs of politics is not essential, with each ridiculous parliamentary convention and every pedantic rule of the political game artfully explained. There’s even a chalkboard on which you can follow the score, as Labour’s majorities in the house waver, die, limp on and scrape through.
The play’s focus in the Commons is the offices of the opposing whips. In the red corner we have Philip Glenister’s effortlessly charming, eminently likeable Walter Harrison, whose backroom dealings and frenetic brokering just about prop up the ailing Labour administration month by exhausting month. In the blue corner: the Tories, whose aim is to defeat the government on keynote legislation, call a vote of no confidence and force a snap election.
It’s basically a 1970s-flavoured The Thick Of It on Ice. Obscenities and wisecracks crackle and zing up and down the stage, which, along with the audience seating, is an impressive replica of the House of Commons with Big Ben looming large over proceedings. A glam rock band, later a punk band, set their guitars howling through scene changes and splendid choreographed set pieces. To aid clarity and keep things moving, we have the Speaker of the House who formally announces the arrival of each minor character from the Speaker’s chair. The production is wildly and wickedly inventive, constantly playing with form in this way.
There is no partisan bias in the text – this is a balanced affair: a human story in which the idiosyncratic traits of all parties are equally and gleefully sent up. The Labour whips are struggling to get their guys to Westminster to vote through their bills because of endless heart attacks, while for Tory members the problem is grouse-shooting and horse-riding accidents. Playwright Graham mines every last Catch-22, every ancient parliamentary tradition and ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ for – often dark – comic gold.
After yet another bizarre twist in the saga of parliamentary rules, one whip is curious: “Has this happened before?” he asks. “It doesn’t matter,” replies another, “It’s happening now.” A viewing of This House will entertain, enlighten and equip you with the requisite knowledge to keep tabs on our present parliamentary instability. You’ll also snort wine out of your nose. It’s pretty funny.