Writer: James Graham
Director: Jeremy Herrin
Reviewer: Dave Smith
Local boy James Graham (who is from the village of Annesley and used to work at the Royal Centre as a doorman) has become not only one of this country’s most successful playwrights in recent years, he’s almost certainly been the most prolific. In just the last 12 months, he’s had four new plays open: Ink(about Rupert Murdoch) at the Almeida; Labour of Love (about the modern Labour Party, and which has just won an Olivier award for Best New Comedy) at the Noël Coward Theatre; Quiz(about the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? cheating scandal) at Chichester; and Culture(about Hull’s year as City of Culture) at Hull Truck.
It’s not hard to see from that list of subjects that Graham takes his inspiration from real-life – often political – events. This House, his first major hit from 2012, is no different, being set during the turbulent years of 1974-1979 during which a minority Labour government struggled against all odds (and then a few more) to cling on to power. And if you think politics is chaotic today, it’s as nothing compared to the events Graham is able to draw upon.
The action mostly takes place in the two Whips’ offices, nominally led by Humphrey Atkins (William Chubb) for the Conservatives and first Bob Mellish (Martin Marquez) and then Michael Cocks (Tony Turner) for Labour. But it’s the deputies Jack Weatherill (Conservative, Matthew Pidgeon) and Walter Harrison (Labour, James Gaddas) who are the professional arm-twisters, dealers and plotters, for whom the game of just winning has become more important than any principles that might have led them into politics in the first place. Although they are undoubted enemies, there’s also a huge amount of mutual respect; each knows he’s up against a canny operator at the top of his game.
Since World War II, government has survived on consensus and gentlemen’s agreements, but after two tight elections leave Labour with the slenderest of majorities, the stakes are higher and the opportunity/danger of winning/losing power becomes an almost daily occurrence. When Labour play a bit too fast and loose with a centuries-old tradition to win by a single vote, the gloves are off and suddenly there’s no trick too dirty, no plot too devious, no deal too shady and no MP too close to death’s door to be wheeled in and through the lobby for the latest crucial division. Meanwhile, Labour’s MPs are making the whole balancing act even harder by having babies, getting arrested, faking their own suicides and dying in previously unheard of numbers.
If you’re not of an age to remember the events in question, it might all have been just a little too crazy to be believable, were it not for the numerous parallels that can be drawn with today’s minority government, where regional parties find themselves with levels of importance well beyond their actual numbers and maverick MPs know that party discipline is far less likely to be invoked when their vote might just be the difference between a government falling and surviving to fight (and more importantly, keep the other lot out) another day. On that front, this revival is very timely.
With a cast of 22 – the sort of numbers you’d normally see on the stage in a big musical – playing 66 characters between them, plus a band taking us through the music and fashion of the period, there’s a lot going on and there’s certainly a lot to enjoy. Nevertheless, so manically episodic is so much of the show that there are many likely to be left confused and even lost by exactly who was whom, what they were doing and why they were doing it, especially when so many members of the cast are playing so many Members of Parliament across all parties.
Order amidst the chaos – both politically and theatrically – is provided from the Whips office. Both James Gaddas and Matthew Pidgeon are outstanding, while Tony Turner provides genuine heart as the one Whip who’s managed to retain some level of political conscience. Of the cameo roles, the standouts are Orlando Wells’ surreally screwy John Stonehouse and Harry Kershaw summoning the spirit of Harry Enfield’s Tim Nice But Dim for his Norman St John Stevas. Meanwhile, Louise Ludgate’s Audrey Wise is a splendid study in principled arsiness (if Theresa May thinks that Boris Johnson is a handful, she should be grateful she never had an Audrey Wise to deal with). However, given the fact that the nature of 1970s politics requires the cast to made up of mostly middle-aged and (sorry, guys) more elderly men, credit is due all round for the amount of energy required to keep it all moving at such a pace.
Rae Smith’s set is truly impressive, managing to convey at the same time the cramped offices from which the Whips had to work (and indeed still do) and the impressive vastness of the wider Palace of Westminster.
This House is cleverly constructed, immaculately directed, undoubtedly enjoyable and often very funny. But, while it may not require an in-depth knowledge of 1970s political history, unlike some of James Graham’s more recent work – Labour of Love, for instance, is arguably both funnier and more accessible – it will definitely help if you watch it with at least some idea of the actual events being portrayed.
Runs until 14 April and on tour | Image: Johan Persson