Review: This House, National Theatre
An edited version was published in The Guardian, 02.03.2013
This House has found it’s natural home. James Graham’s play is such a thoroughbred crowdpleaser – big, broad and relishably irreverent – that its start in the Cottesloe studio always looked cautious. It thrives in the Olivier, lampooning a political system that’s flawed but somehow still functioning, without tipping into spoof.
By taking us behind the scenes at parliament, where, in 1974, Harold Wilson’s minority Labour government is just about clinging to power, Graham strips politics of policy to show us its underlying machinery. What’s left is little more than a battle for numbers. Two teams of whips vie for control of the chamber, courting the “odds and sods” of minor parties and dragging in their MPs, whether walking wounded or staggering drunk, by any means necessary. Every vote counts.
In essence, it’s a classic sporting narrative dressed in the suits and sideburns of 70s politics. Jeremy Herrin’s nimble production even includes montages: bedraggled MPs shuffle through lobbies and, frequently, snuff it to a live punk(ish) soundtrack.
In the red corner: Labour’s plucky, shambling underdogs are desperate to see out the full five years, one motion at a time. Down the corridor, just as determined to topple them with a vote of no confidence: the well-tailored, over-entitled Tories. Each side faces obstacles. Backbenchers rebel. Key players swap sides or succumb to injury. Sportsmanship – in this case the gentleman’s agreement of pairing off absent MPs – goes out the window. Michael Heseltine goes haywire. Graham’s Westminster might as well be Wembley.
It’s politics as playground tribalism, and Graham brilliantly skewers the hollow survivalism of party politics as Britain, like Big Ben’s clock, grinds to a halt. There are right honourable exceptions: Helena Lymbery’s backbencher who defies the whip on principle; Christopher Godwin’s old-timer who’d risk death to support his party. Most of all, we cheer the two deputy whips – Labour’s shabby sheriff Walter Harrison and dignified Tory Jack Weatherill – for whom respect trumps rivalry. Reece Dinsdale and Charles Edwards cannily suggest their humility – both know this playground is all swings and roundabouts. Today’s government is tomorrow’s opposition.
The play could use more socio-political substance, but Herrin works wonders with Graham’s neat rat-a-tat gags and his restrained showmanship staves off the play’s repetition. There’s strong support from Phil Daniels, Vincent Franklin and Julian Wadham as characterful chief whips, and from Lauren O’Neill as junior whip Ann Taylor, one of the female MPs ushering a fresh breeze through parliament’s starched traditions and dusty corner.
Image: National Theatre