Director: Jeremy Herrin / Jonathan Boyle
Playwright: James Graham
Reviewer: Helen Tope
It is 1974, and the Labour Party have won the General Election. But a win without a majority means the race is on to nudge Labour over the line and into political safety.
Enter the Whips – the handlers of Westminster. It is their job to see MP’s vote in their party’s favour. A softly-softly approach hasn’t reached the back-rooms of Parliament yet, and the tactics are rude, crude and surprisingly effective.
The Labour Whips are mostly Trade Union boys, schooled in the art of bruising knuckles to make a point. The Conservatives, as you might expect, are polished vowels and tailored suits. But they too are not above getting their cuffs dirty if the occasion calls for it.
It is an atmosphere so rich you can smell the cigarettes and down the beer. The language is blue, but the respect for Parliament’s traditions is upheld by both parties. The play ruminates on what will be lost as Labour concede defeat in 1979. The Thatcherite age promises a very different set of priorities.
Stylistically, This House acts as the precursor to comedies such as Yes, Minister and The Thick of It, but what is remarkable is how little has changed. The highly inventive swearing and the casual (and not so casual) sexism remain firmly in place. The frantic jockeying for position stays as much a tradition as the ceremonial mace.
The terminology of Parliament is spat out across the divide; phrases we think of as being contemporary reveal themselves to be much older. We hear of snap elections and rainbow coalitions – there is nothing new under the sun.
But to paint This House as an exercise in cynicism would be unfair. At heart, there is still a desire to represent, and everything that implies. There is an idealism at the core of this play which sadly feels the most dated reference of all. The career politician is only just beginning to emerge. Among the blokes and toffs is Ann Taylor, school teacher turned MP – a new character among the stock types.
While there are things to enjoy in this production, at nearly 3 hours long, This House needs somewhat of an edit – even the sharpest dialogue can’t maintain that pace. The best scenes, mostly in the first half, crackle and sparkle. But playing through the machinations required for a vote of no-confidence, the second half feels more like a civics lesson than entertainment.
This House also has to address the problem of how to keep going when you’ve ditched your best character too early. Martin Marquez as Bob Mellish, Labour Whip, is a fabulous watch; a performance full of charisma and cockney charm. You would pay to see him face-off with Sir Humphrey, and not bet on the outcome, either. But as he exits just before the interval, much of the play’s lifeblood drains away after him. While This House is rooted in real events, this is where licence needed to be taken.
But the main issue with the play centres on delivery. To make a wordy play live on stage, the dialogue needs to be handled with the lightest touch. Instead, the cast over-emphasised words to milk laughs. We may be far from Westminster, but Plymouth can still do nuance.
The production has its moments of glory – a sombre fade to black as Margaret Thatcher gives her victory speech – but these moments need to be stitched closer together. The play is, for all its merits, a house divided.
Runs until Saturday 5 May | Image: Johan Persson