“We have traditions, gentlemen’s agreements…things to help us to the best we can”
It’s always nice when karma works out in your favour. A clash in the schedule meant that I had to return my original ticket for This House and as the run was completely sold out, I was doubtful that I’d get to see the show. But as it turned out, standing tickets in the pit had just been released and so for the princely sum of £5, I was able to take in an early preview of James Graham’s new play for the National Theatre.
Set in the halls of Westminster across the incident-ridden 1974-1979 parliament, This House occupies that strange ground of fictionalised reality that so many playwrights seem to love. Graham has taken inspiration from the real events of the time – the hung parliament, economic crises, changes in leadership and a surprisingly high mortality rate among MPs – and created his own version of events. His focus lies with the whips on both sides and it is from their perspective that we see events occur, as they troubleshoot left, right and centre, struggle to control their wayward members and do deal after deal with their opposing counterparts, observing the age-old traditions and principles that serve in place of a constitution.
Too often, especially if the subject concerned is something you are familiar with, the fictionalisation around it can be frustrating and distracting, but my knowledge of 1970s British politics is not what it could be and so I can’t comment on any matters of accuracy or believability. In some ways, this is an advantage with a play like this as it means I can only assess it on its dramatic merits. And it is already a large amount of fun. Graham’s script is fresh and amusing and really cuts to the hearts of these hard-working politicians as they wheel and deal and connive and persuade in the name of parliamentary democracy and in pursuit of that ever elusive majority.
On the Tory side, Julian Wadham oozes self-important entitlement but Charles Edwards adds an unexpected note of compassion as a true gentleman (with almighty hair). And the Labour whips’ office is excellently portrayed with Phil Daniels and Philip Glenister exuding pragmatic blokiness, Lauren O’Neil sketching the rise of the first female whip with great character and Vincent Franklin – so very brilliant in The Day We Sang which has to be remounted somewhere soon – just superb as a man initially in his element who is sadly later thrust well out of his depth.
But the masterstroke of Jeremy Herrin’s production is to have the MPs themselves, and there are at least 30 of them in here, played by an ever-revolving chorus of eight in a vast array of 70s wigs and slacks and perfectly capturing the never-ending energy of life behind the scenes at Westminster and indeed of this show. They are all strong but I particularly loved Matthew Pidgeon and Helena Lymbery’s work here. Herrin also incorporates a more distinctive directorial flair than one is perhaps used to with him. A live rock band provide accompaniment and New Adventures’ Scott Ambler is on hand for choreographic duties as the show very occasionally breaks out into a highly theatrical extravaganza and then back again. I had mixed feelings – I loved the band, I hated the sea – but the work here is always undeniably interesting.
My only real problem was with the length of This House. At nearly 3 hours long, it becomes rather punishing towards the end and in all honesty, it doesn’t need to take as long as it does to get where it is going. Some judicious trimming could get the show closer to the stated 2 hours 45 minutes in the programme, but there’s also a feeling that Graham could have done with distilling his incredibly detailed research and writing just that one step more. On a more personal level and reflective of my own disillusionment with the political classes, I also thought the show was a little too lenient on the politicians themselves and the system in which they operate, their behaviour and its incredible idiosyncrasies celebrated rather than castigated, with that gnawing sense that MPs frequently exist in their own bubble and very little indeed has actually changed in this ostensibly venerable institution.
But it is strongly acted, occasionally very funny and visually interesting so definitely worth trying to see. The standing tickets were absolutely fine too – you can lean forward or back, the view is great and it’s only a fiver too.