Ever thought about being an MP? I have to admit there have been times when I have. After all, the salary isn’t bad – nor is the pension – you get a nice office in central London, subsidised meals and bars, free travel to your constituency and back – first class naturally – and the work can’t be that hard can it? Well if you had been an honorable or right honourable member during the mid to late seventies, then you would have found the work very hard going indeed and nobody in parliament worked harder than the party Whips, who were trying to either prop up or destroy a government permanently on the edge of failure. Turbulent times which have been fantastically recreated in James Graham’s political drama This House which has just opened in the West End’s Garrick Theatre.
Set in the turbulent political period between 1974 and 1979 This House looks at the events of that time from the point of view of the government and opposition whips as they try to maintain order and party discipline. This was time before the rise of the career politicians we see in parliament today. The Labour whips – headed by Bob Mellish (Phil Daniels), his deputy Walter Harrison (Steffan Rhodri) and the team Michael Cocks (Kevin Doyle), Joe Harper (David Hounslow) and new Junior Whip Ann Taylor) – were all good old fashioned working class folks who were there to represent the people and make the world a fairer place. On the opposite of the house sat the Conservative whips – headed by tall patrician Chief Whip Humphrey Atkins (Malcolm Sinclair) his deputy Jack Wetherill (Nathaniel Parker) and Junior Whip Fred Silvester (Ed Hughes). Whilst they may not all have been born with a silver spoon in their mouths, they are all the epitome of a good Conservative and could probably walk from Lands’ End to John O’Groats on land owned by them and their friends.
However, whatever their background all of the whips have the same issues to deal with – a hung parliament, a referendum on Europe, leadership elections, calls for independence by Scotland, etc – not to mention the odd MP’s problems like faking their own death, being accused of planning a murder and changing sides at the worst possible time. This really was an era of momentous political shenanigans with dodgy deals and compromises being the order of the day to ensure business went through parliament successfully.
More by luck than skill, this production of This House could not have arrived on the scene at a more fortuitous or apt time. Just read the last paragraph describing the political issues of the day and I could have easily have been writing about 2016 as much as the 1970s. The only difference between then and now is the MPs themselves who were far more colourful and real than today’s mass-produced lobby fodder. Writer James Graham has really captured the essence of the time. Although based on real events – I remember I was there – James is keen to point out that much of the dialogue is from his imagination. However, just as ‘Yes Minister’ captured the essence of the relationship between a Minister and the civil service, so This House comes across as a highly realistic portrait of British politics at the time. There were a couple of points which confused me in the story – such as everyone suddenly breaking out into a rendition of ‘I Vow to Thee My Country’ but, although nearly three hours long, I didn’t find my attention wandering once as we covered six years where every day brought a new element to the various and complex political stories dominating the news headlines.
If you are not that familiar with the British political system, I would definitely recommend you invest in a programme which gives some handy information not only of the politicians involved but the complex and arcane rules by which Westminster works, such as dragging the new and highly reluctant Speaker of the House to his chair at the start of Act II. Designer Rae Smith has created a wonderful rendition of Westminster – all green fabrics for the House of Commons (the House of Lords uses Red) and wood panelling – that is everything from the Whips office, through the bar, the Commons Chamber to the top of the Clock Tower – for info, Big Ben is the bell, not the tower or the clock. There are even visitors’ galleries, which are used extremely well in this slick and expertly directed (kudos to Jeremy Herrin) production. Even though there is a large cast moving around all over the place as conversations are whispered and deals are made, the stage never seems overly crowded.
Turning to the actors and, I have to say, this cast is perfect in every way. A lot of This House hinges on the relationship between the two Deputy Chief Whips and Steffan Rhodri and Nathaniel Parker brought a wonderful sense of humanity to these politicians who may have been deadly enemies in the House and have nothing in common socially but had a grudging admiration for each other. This was really displayed beautifully in their little meetings where the banter was cutting but affectionate as they played the political game. Really excellent work by both actors.
Overall then, This House is a great play which reminds the audience of a time when politics and politicians were so much more interesting than they are today. The conversations may be fabricated in the mind of the writer but the events were real. Compromises were the order of the day and the Whips used every tactic at their disposal – including bringing in the ill and near-dead to vote – in order to achieve their party’s goal. I’m not sure everyone will fully understand every nuance of the processes and rituals portrayed but This House will entertain, inform and enlighten every audience member of a time that seems to have come back with a vengeance.
Review by Terry Eastham
Is a political revolution coming? Will the Labour party collapse? Can the kingdom stay united?
It’s 1974. And Westminster is about to go to war with itself. Set in the engine rooms of the House of Commons, James Graham’s This House dives deep into the secret world of the Whips who roll up their sleeves and go to often farcical lengths to influence an unruly chorus of MPs within the Mother of all Parliaments.
In an era of chaos, both hilarious and shocking, fist fights break out in the parliamentary bars, high-stake tricks and games are played, while sick or dying MPs are carried through the lobby to register their crucial votes as the government hangs by a thread.
Premiered to universal acclaim at the National Theatre in 2012, This House written by James Graham (The Vote, Privacy) and directed by Headlong Artistic Director Jeremy Herrin (People, Places and Things, Wolf Hall), gives us a timely, moving and often amusing insight into the workings of British politics.
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