Writer: James Graham
Director: Jeremy Herrin
Reviewer: Alice Fowler
The year is 1974 and Britain has a hung parliament. At Westminster, the Labour and Tory whips must employ every ounce of skulduggery and thuggery. Ahead loom a European referendum and the hornets’ nest of devolution.
So far, so familiar? The beauty of James Graham’s excellent play This House, set from 1974-1979, is that in politics, as in life, nothing really changes. This wonderful National Theatre and Chichester Festival Theatre production, on show at the Yvonne Arnaud in Guildford this week, highlights the binary, confrontational nature of British politics.
The stage is divided in two – one side for the Labour whips, all cheap suits, northern accents and chips eaten from the paper – and, on the other, their Tory counterparts, fruity voiced and ruthless. Beyond that, at the edges of the stage, are the benches of the House of Commons, used by the cast when the Speaker calls a vote. Also occupying the benches are members of the audience: an extraordinary experience, one imagines, to see scenes of such vitriol up close.
While writer James Graham makes clear that his play is fiction, not fact, he has drawn on impeccable contemporary sources, notably the former Labour whip Joe Ashton. A raft of familiar ‘big beasts’ of the time are featured, among them Norman St John Stevas, Michael Heseltine and Jeremy Thorpe. (Indeed, for anyone watching the BBC’s Thorpe-based drama, A Very English Scandal, the play – first performed in 2012 – takes on an extra resonance).
Acting is superb throughout, notably from James Gaddas, Martin Marquez and Tony Turner as Labour Whips, and William Chubb and Matthew Pidgeon on the Tory side. While we are firmly rooted in the Seventies, with musicians on the balcony belting out the sounds of the time, we also feel the winds of change. The Labour whips’ office has a new female member, Ann Taylor (Natalie Grady). Women MPs – yes, there are a few – want somewhere they can breastfeed. And, as the play progresses, a certain Member for Finchley challenges Ted Heath and takes over as Tory party leader.
Much of the play’s conflict arises from pairing (the traditional system whereby an MP of one party is ‘paired’ with one from the opposition, both agreeing not to vote). When the system breaks down farcical scenes ensue, with Members more dead than alive hustled into attending.
Yet, for all their bluster, the relationship between Labour deputy chief whip Walter Harrison (James Gaddas) and his Tory equivalent Jack Weatherill (Matthew Pidgeon) becomes genuinely moving. Then as now, we understand, rival MPs have more in common with one another than they do with the electorate outside.
Runs until 26 May 2018 | Image: Johan Perrsson