Writer: James Graham
Director: Jeremy Herrin
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
The mid-to-late 1970s was a turbulent time for British politics. The Conservative Government under Ted Heath had already had a torrid time with two miners’ strikes, power blackouts and the Three-Day week; in 1974 Heath called a snap election to get a new mandate. It was a miscalculation: the result was a hung parliament. Power shifted to the minority Labour Government under Harold Wilson. Later that year, a further election returned Labour with the slenderest of overall majorities.
One could be forgiven for thinking that the cut-and-thrust of government takes place solely in the debating chamber. If that is the tip of the iceberg, then below the surface there’s the whips’ offices – the teams whose rôles are to ensure the smooth running of Parliament: persuading and cajoling their own MPs to support the party line; wooing and bargaining with the smaller parties to obtain their support for critical votes; and liaising via the ‘usual channels’ with the other whips in gentlemen’s agreements that, for example, allow absent or incapacitated members to be ‘paired’ – where a member of the opposing party will abstain so that the vote remains fair.
But what if the opposition suspect the government of cheating on a pairing agreement? What if they close the usual channels as part of a strategy to bring the government down? Then it is the whips’ rôle to get all warm-bodied members into the house and on-side. Headlong Theatre’s This House looks at the whips’ rôles at this time.
And what a time it was, with flamboyant MPs quoting Latin (no, in the 1970s it was Norman St John Stevas) or, with businesses under investigation for fraudulent accounting, faking their own deaths (John Stonehouse, of course).
In This House, the debating chamber hardly appears: the machinations of government take place in the whips’ offices, in corridors or in secluded spots. It’s a human-scale drama of nip-and-tuck, where the two offices play cat-and-mouse as the government clings to power. It’s a fascinating insight.
This House is a fast-moving pageant, assisted by the clever set design of Rae Smith and lighting design of Paule Constable: wood panelling evokes the image of the house, while focused lighting is used well to transport us to the different locations. A small onstage band provides music to suit the mood or when the action is compressed and closely choreographed as cast members move about the stage to attend to their business. However, for those who remember the characters and events, the custom of referring to members by constituency and not name can be confusing – although everyone in the auditorium appears to know the member for Finchley – leading to much checking in the programme to decode precisely who is whom, especially as the members of the large ensemble cast switch characters and costumes regularly. It also means that some characterisation is a touch simplistic, for example, that of perennial thorn in the government’s side, Audrey Wise (Louise Ludgate).
The central relationships are those in the whips’ offices and the unlikely camaraderie between the deputy chief whips: Walter Harrison (James Gaddas) on the government side and Jack Weatherill (Matthew Pidgeon) for the opposition. They display a grudging respect and, almost, friendship, even as each seeks to defeat the other politically. It is these characters for whom we really start rooting as the government is put under increasing pressure. Their chiefs, the blustering Bob Mellish (Martin Marquez) followed by the more introspective Michael Cocks (Tony Turner) for the government and cold fish Humphrey Atkins (William Chubb) for the opposition, help to set the scene for the power play that ensues. The twists and turns of fortune and the impact on these small teams is well drawn with each member of the ensemble playing their part effectively.
Writer James Graham is quick to point out that, while This House is based on true events, it is necessarily a dramatisation; nevertheless, it provides a fascinating, compelling and witty insight into the cut-and-thrust of behind-the-scenes politics usually hidden from view.
Runs Until 21 April 2018 and on tour | Image: Johan Persson