"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.
Running time: 2
hours 55 minutes (with interval) – the programme indicates they’re aiming for 2
Booking until 1st December
Labels: Andrew Havill, Charles Edwards, Ed Hughes, Gunnar Cauthery, Helena Lymbery, James Graham, Julian Wadham, Lauren O'Neil, Matthew Pidgeon, NT, Phil Daniels, Philip Glenister, Rupert Vansittart, Vincent Franklin