22nd February 2017, matinee
After runs in the Cottesloe and Olivier auditoriums at the National and a short run in Chichester, James Graham’s This House, based on Labour’s turbulent attempt at ruling with a minority government between 1974-9, last week finished its run in the West End. We saw the final midweek matinee, a day before two important by-elections in Stoke and Copeland. Being revived four years after its first outing suggests how there will (I imagine) always be relevancies in This House. Indeed, there’s a line in the play about the absurdity of a referendum about the EU that easily and understandably gets one of the biggest laughs of the play. I can’t help but wonder if it was always in the play or if it had been added.
In setting the play in the seventies we not only see the fictional account of deals with the ‘Other’ parties and Labour’s struggle to retain MPs, all of which is perfect for drama, but it also allows Graham to compare the system between then and now. Amid all the excitement of backroom politics, This House exposes the flaws of the system: that it’s so often a 2 horse race, an either-or, and somehow still stuck on old ways that are no longer relevant or representative of the nation. I recently read on another theatre blog that theatre should ‘bin the binaries’ and have since been puzzling over what it means. The point seems more pertinent regarding this play as Graham has a lot of fun with binaries. It seems startling to think that the complex issues of so many different aspects of politics in this country were (still are?) boiled down to Labour vs. Conservative, one side of the house versus the other, regional accent or not, and, ultimately in This House, red vs. blue. Whether you’re Red or Blue apparently represents so many different things about class, upbringing and beliefs.
This may be the view of politics in the 1970s but it’s also how UK parliament operates now, even if the Labour Party is seemingly struggling and other parties such as the SNPs have more representation. Ultimately, it’s still a house of two halves. Such a reductive idea also brings with it accompanying stereotypes, some perhaps lived up to. These are telling when Tories and Labour describe their opponents, the former being presented as stuck up and privileged whereas the latter thought of as foul-mouthed, greasy haired moaners. No more are these clichés entertainingly realised and played up than in two successive scenes featuring a Conservative whip surprisingly liking but not understanding Coronation Street followed by a Labour whip reacting the same to opera. A southerner watching Corrie? A northerner liking opera?! Oh, how we laughed!
A striking image (clock pun!) in the play is the imposing face of Big Ben that looks down on the stage. Ticking away through two world wars, it is a symbol of a political system standing tall and carrying on through adversity. So when it stops at the end of Act I it’s an all too ominous sign for a government barely staying afloat as it is. The clock breaking is akin to the Palace of Westminster needing serious and urgent repair in the 21st century. One could even read into the dodgy dimming lights in the play as being another reminder of a failing structure.
A picture starts to build of a system crumbling under the pressure of a seismic cultural sea change to modernise. The contempt with which the smaller parties – the mere so-called ‘odds and sods’ – are treated and how they are taken for granted, ignored cries for debates about devolution, the shock to some MPs of women breastfeeding, and the amount of old men dying (whether technically in the Palace or not) echo current issues over the Houses of Parliament still largely being patriarchal and London-centric.
A co-production by Headlong, and directed by its artistic director Jeremy Herrin, the company puts (or used to) the word’s definitions at the forefront of what it does:
1. With head first,
2. Starting boldly,
3. To approach with speed and vigour.
Herrin’s production is no less than what you expect from Headlong: innovative, exciting, contemporary. The play is solid if perhaps a bit old fashioned (maybe from form reflecting content?) but together, play and production, This House shows the possibilities of what theatre can be: progressive and collaborative. It perhaps doesn’t provide the same optimism, however, in showing us what politics could be like.
Graham also explores the heavy reliance on archaic traditions. In The Vote, he examined how the weight of our democracy rests on the power afforded to rickety polling booths and pencils on string in school halls and social clubs all over the country. Here, there is a fascination in such things as the gentleman’s agreement of pairing; the farces surrounding nodding people through the house and dragging in the speaker; weird little idiosyncrasies such as swords, maces and wigs; and jealousies over the ruling party’s perks such as better chairs and ministerial cars.
I also like how the play is prone to quite savvy casting by including actors who perhaps have strong associations with previous work (not that that denies their versatility). As the public school, RP Tory whips we have Nathaniel Parker (not unaccustomed to playing politicians) and Malcolm Sinclair. On the other side, Phil Daniels and Steffan Rhodri (not to mention Philip Glenister in a previous cast). All of them are impressive at conveying the excitement and high pressure of being a party whip, roaming their offices like lions in a pit. Kevin Doyle also excels in a less showy role as the Labour chief whip in Act II, desperately grasping at straws to try to get Labour to complete a five year government.
Graham’s rich play is funny and adroit, exalted to another level by Herrin’s production, Rae Smith’s design, Stephen Warbeck’s music and Scott Ambler’s choreography which bring out and embrace its lively nature.
This House ran at the Garrick until 25th February, 2017.