Review: This House
“A Conservative government always eventually falls because they believe themselves entitled to power, and Labour governments always fall because they don’t,” is the advice of a wry Liberal in James Graham’s new play about Westminster in the 1970s under a catastrophic minority Labour government. It is also just one example from a full house of poignant epigrams peppering the script of this fast-paced production.
Set in the pleasingly claustrophobic Cottesloe theatre at the National, audience members are immediately hurtled into the sticky hell of the Commons, seated either in government or opposition seats in a set laid out to mirror the chamber, with Big Ben’s stammering clock hands beamed onto the back wall.
The play follows the activities of both Labour and Conservative whips’ offices, as they battle for the favour of the “odds and sods” – angry Scots raging about devolution, some drunken Irish, and Liberals in beige checked flares – in order to hold influence in the House governed by a precarious and potty-mouthed Labour minority. So ineffectual is it that at one point, an angry Scottish MP roars, “this isn’t a parliament, it’s a fucking purgatory!” Remind you of anything?
The heart of the drama lies in the tensions and occasional affections between the Tory and Labour whips, with stand-out performances by Philip Glenister as Walter, a burly Labour bruiser with a kind heart, and Charles Edwards as the honest posho, Jack – “can’t anyone in the North sit properly?” he asks on first visiting the Labour whips’ office for a cross-party meeting, “imagine it’s [the chair’s] a hay bale.”
Deputy chief whips Walter and Jack are torn as their respective offices fluctuate between strained gentleman’s alliances and all-out war – the Commons’ mace is wielded and swing about menacingly during a particularly heated division – and eventually, they are no longer allowed to ‘pair’. Pairing is the gentleman’s agreement between government and opposition whips which sees them match the number of their opponents’ MPs absent from a vote in order to cancel each other out.
It is these little Westminster-insider quirks that draw audience members into the grubby little world decried by one disillusioned MP: “it’s archaic, it’s old-fashioned, it’s bollocks.” We have a rollicking parliamentary lesson in ‘pairing’, ‘nodding through’, ‘wrecking amendments’ and the rather ominous ‘usual channels’ – and to avoid too much of a history lesson for an evening at the theatre, it’s all set to a soundtrack of David Bowie and Sex Pistols, provided by a live band playing in front of Big Ben’s sad old face.
There is also some unlikely physical theatre, with singing and dancing in collective agony lamenting the “five years” left of such a difficult minority government, or in other words, “Labour Britain: it’s shit, but it’s equally shit for everyone.” Seventeen members die over the period, a record, and there is a touching scene in which one member throws himself into the Thames. His most recent motion had been regarding drowning statistics. The Labour whips are livid, as their minority becomes increasingly major. “Nobody dies in the Palace of Westminster” is the rule. Members are dragged in to vote on wheelchairs, by helicopter, boat, stretcher...
And if it seems far-fetched, these activities are based on the difficulties of the actual minority Labour government under Jim Callaghan as he steered through impossible alliances and was finally brought down by a vote of no confidence and succeeded by Thatcher. Although the conversations are imagined, and some characters and scenes altered for the drama, Graham based This House on real events, having interviewed individual politicians from the period. And the hectic mix of turmoil and unholy alliances are particularly apt for today’s coalition-led audience.
Furiously witty, and often touching, this is a treat for politics aficionados and civilians alike – except maybe if you’re from Redditch. According to one disgruntled young Tory, his constituency “sounds like a frog vomiting.”