On the programme for This House, which is split down the middle in Labour-red and Tory-blue, former leader of the Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg shares his thoughts on the “superb new production” of James Graham’s 2012 play. “There is nothing as riddled with paradox as Westminster politics”, he claims, and This House makes you agree with him.
The play follows the fictionalised account of what went on in the Palace of Westminster during the turbulent period between the general election of 1974 and the 1979 vote of no confidence that ended James Callaghan’s time as Prime Minister. Under the directions of Jeremy Herrin and Jonathan O’Boyle, the play unfolds with rapid speed and in exhausting detail; for nearly three hours, we follow the Labour and Conservative Chief Whips as they scheme in their individual chambers, celebrate their occasional victory and curse the “anarchy” of the snap-election: “This isn’t parliament, it’s purgatory!”
A three-hour play about 1970s British politics that makes reference to 58 different politicians needs to run smoothly. Above the stage, a band plays live music against a huge projection of the Big Ben. This, combined with the exceptional light design by Paule Constable and Ben Pickersgill, grants distinction to the overwhelming number of scenes and characters. While a white-wigged House Speaker introduces each character and their constituency, the live music throws groovy jazz-rhythms and classic rock songs into the swirling mixture of comedy and political turmoil that unfolds on stage. Like a mixture between a throne-room and a tennis court, it is bathed in green light, with dark wooden panelling, multiple seating arrangements and a large speaker’s chair looming upstage centre.
In the multitude of characters, we learn to distinguish Labour whips Robert Mellish, Walter Harrison, Michael Cocks, Joe Harper and Ann Taylor from their Tory equivalents Humphrey Atkins, Jack Weatherhill and Fred Silvester. Labour has just won the 1974 general election that made Harold Wilson Prime Minister and, while none of the party leaders figure in the play, their presence is just as looming as that of the ever-malfunctioning Big Ben: “The lady is not happy” Atkins informs his colleague in the second act, anticipating Thatcher’s era.
While the Tories lick their wounds, the Labour whips celebrate their victory and welcome their first female member. Their happiness is cut short, however, by the realisation that, whilst Labour is the biggest party, they will end up with a hung parliament if they are unable to convince the “odds and sods” from the other parties to support them.
Stretching over four and a half years, the play features both parties philosophising around the nature of politics, sometimes taking on almost Shakespearian proportions, other times with members trying to beat
each other up with the large golden mace: “Act like honourable gentlemen, not football hooligans!”. Indeed, this political wildness is constantly present with a tally kept in the Labour chamber, carefully recording their scarce majority while the number is continually adjusted up and down: “Politics is a cruel sport,” one of the Labour whips proclaims.
Adding a feminist aspect to the play, Ann Taylor is treated surprisingly well and quickly carves out a place for herself among the whips. Worried she is kept as a “token woman”, she begs her male colleagues not to apologise for swearing in front of her.
Britain’s obsession with class is also brought up almost immediately; the Labour whips display a bouquet of regional accents, while Humphrey Atkins proclaims that the Conservatives’ advantage is that they have, “well, class”: “Labour Britain is shit, but at least it’s equally shit for everyone.”
This is the world of rapid-fire dialogue and long hours in the parliamentary bar, which turns out to be a real bar the audience can get drinks from during the interval. There is no small amount of audience participation involved; for a few extra quid, you can sit on stage in the individual chambers, where you are invited to cheer with the victories of the respective parties. A mention of the 1975 referendum on the UK’s continued membership within the European Communities elicits a sigh from the audience, and perhaps some agreed with Labour’s Walter Harrison proclamation that “the British democracy would work well if it wasn’t so damn reliant on people.”
Despite the play’s running time and exhausting pace, This House manages to remain absorbing. Both parties attempt to keep their opponents on their toes, and with strong writing and directing, genius lighting and a stellar cast with no weak links, they manage to have the same effect on the audience.
This House is on at the Norwich Theatre Royal from Tuesday May 8th – Saturday May 12th