Thursday 27 September 2012

Theatre review: This House

In 1974, two general elections resulted in a hung parliament (no clear majority) followed by a slim Labour majority. Without forming a coalition government, this was a parliament never expected to survive long, but against the odds they hung on for almost the full five years. With such a slim majority getting any legislation passed was a herculean task, so This House, James Graham's fictionalised take on these turbulent years in the House of Commons, avoids putting the best-known public faces of 1970s politics on stage. Instead the focus is on the whips of the two main parties. (For the benefit of Americans and other aliens: Whips are MPs for each major party whose job it is to ensure all MPs on their side vote according to the party line. With a majority of just 3 right after the election, just a couple of rebel backbenchers could scupper a government's attempts to push new bills through.)

Phil Daniels, who plays Labour Chief Whip Bob Mellish, was unable to perform tonight so Howard Ward stepped across from the Curious Incident cast to read in the role, and apart from having script in hand you'd barely have noticed he was a late replacement. About halfway through the parliamentary term Mellish is replaced in the job by the much less abrasive Michael Cocks (Vincent Franklin from Twenty Twelve) who works alongside deputy Walter Harrison (Philip Glenister) - in their words, Harrison provides the bark, Cocks the bite. Richard Ridings and Lauren O'Neil complete their team, while on the other side of the corridor Charles Edwards, Julian Wadham and Ed Hughes are their Tory counterparts, occupying their slightly less nice offices (without adjustable chairs.)

Though we're seeing a woman break into the ranks of the whips' offices, this is still very much a men's club with its own set of unspoken rules: A major thread of the story involves the practice of "pairing," a gentlemen's agreement by which if an MP from one party is unable to vote due to illness or some other reason, the whips agree that someone from the other party will abstain, so the result will be the same as if would have been could everyone have attended. Glenister and Edwards often go head to head as the rivals with a mutual respect, and there's a fun scene as the demographics of the two parties start to blur a bit and Glenister's character decides he'd better teach himself a bit about opera, while Edwards' catches up with Coronation Street. As Labour hold in there longer than expected though, all bets are off and the opposition will resort to anything to get them out of power.

For Jeremy Herrin's production, designer Rae Smith has configured the Cottesloe into a replica of the House of Commons, some of the audience taking up the famous green benches, loomed over by the clock face of Big Ben's tower (which, rather symbolically, stops working for much of this administration.) So Christopher and I found ourselves sitting in the Government Benches. It's a suitably dramatic setting even if much of the actual story takes place in the offices behind the scenes. An ensemble including Gunnar Cauthery, Helena Lymbery and Midsummer's Matthew Pidgeon play a host of backbench MPs from both parties, as well as those of the smaller parties whose cooperation could swing a vote one way or the other.

Graham's play deals with the weighty matters of politics in an often very funny way - he has a way with one-liners and the lengths the whips will go to to secure votes often reach farcical levels, like dragging MPs in from hospital while they're still bleeding, or locking drunken MPs into cupboards to stop them disappearing before the vote. Both the comic extremes of what the parties were willing to do, and the unbelievable stress levels caused by the dirty tactics on both sides (this parliament had a record number of MPs dying in office) even breaking into fights in the Commons, have a scary side - that the running of the country could be as precarious as this. But This House is also rather elegiac about the boys' club that ran things at the time. As the seventies come close to their end (occasionally there's a break for a song, sung by Cauthery; Christopher wasn't sure about these, but I thought the changing of styles was a nice way of showing the decade moving on) the woman first dismissively referred to as "Finchley" then in increasingly hushed terms as "The Lady" looms large, and with her an end to the unwritten rules of both sides giving each other a fair chance, and the beginning of sweeping changes forced through at all costs.

Christopher is probably the most interested in politics of all my regular theatre companions, and had some knowledge of the political history of the period, whereas you could say I'm on the opposite of the scale, with a grasp of the basics - I didn't have trouble understanding the mechanics of what was happening in the play, let's put it that way, but I couldn't have named you many of the major players of those days without looking them up. But from both ends of the scale we found it to be well worth seeing, an entertaining and excellently acted look at a political pressure cooker.

This House by James Graham is booking in repertory until the 1st of December at the National Theatre's Cottesloe (returns and day seats only.)

Running time: 2 hours 55 minutes including interval.

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