The Theatreguide.London Review
Cottesloe Theatre Autumn-Winter 2012; Olivier Theatre Spring-Summer 2013
James Graham's new play is the political equivalent of a police procedural crime novel, a meticulous account of the day-to-day drudgery of the job and the mechanics of making the system work. On that level it is informative, fascinating and frequently exciting.
It is only when Graham and director Jeremy Herrin attempt to elevate this by-its-very-nature small-scale account to mythic heights that they go wrong, intimations of heroic status sitting uncomfortably on the hard-working foot soldiers of government.
An imaginary reconstruction based on extensive research, This House is set in Parliament between 1974 and 1979, roughly the Callaghan years, when the Labour Party ruled with only a very tiny majority or none at all, depending on splinter parties to support them. The focus is on the Labour and Conservative Whips' Offices.
(Note to non-Brits: whips are members of parliament chosen by each party to keep party members in line, make sure they vote, make sure they vote the right way, woo others who might vote along with the party, and in any time they have left harass the other guys.)
The Labour whips have the more dramatic story, as the party's precarious hold on government means that every vote is crucial – lose enough of them and the Conservatives could demand a vote of No Confidence, forcing an election (which, not to give too much away, is what eventually happened).
So we watch the Labour whips organising, cajoling, bullying and horse-trading to get out the vote again and again. An individual member or splinter party's support could hinge, we learn, on anything from the promise to support a pet project to a new carpet for someone's office. The sick are literally wheeled in to vote, the drunk locked in so they can't wander off to a pub. One dedicated but dying party member moves his sickbed into his office, as the rules allow him to vote from there.
Party principles and even what an individual bill is for become almost irrelevant as getting out the vote becomes the immediate and overriding concern.
And meanwhile the Tory whips essentially just sit back and bide their time, straining only enough effort to make sure the other guys' job isn't easy, knowing that their time will come sooner or later.
The play is not quite as unpolitical as I make it sound. Though the focus is on the machinery rather than the principles of government, there are opportunities for some to pause and consider why they do what they do, and James Graham puts in their mouths some eloquent and thought-provoking criticisms and defences of the parliamentary system.
But, as if he doesn't trust the inherent value and theatricality of this peep behind the curtain, Graham and director Herrin overlay it with things designed to make it Meaningful and Epic, and they are unnecessary gilding on a too-fragile lily.
At nearly three hours, the play is far too long for its story. A few stylised and choreographed sequences – not enough to be part of the play's natural style – are beautifully staged but seem to have wandered in from some other show, as does the rock band that plays between some scenes.
The device of speaking of all but a few characters by their constituencies rather than their names distances and dehumanises when it is the essence of a procedural to bring us close to the individuals. And the attempt to draw some symbolic meaning out of the fact that Big Ben's clock broke down during this period falls flat.
The playwright's imagination makes all the Tory MPs rich while all the Labour characters we meet are working class northerners – which may in fact have been true, and is an acceptable theatrical shorthand. Among the first, Julian Wadham is droll as the patrician Chief Whip, rarely able to work up much anxiety over anything, while Charles Edwards is the Deputy who does enjoy getting his hands a bit untidy from time to time.
Philip Glenister plays the Labour Deputy Whip as the most energetic and savvy of the lot, with Lauren O'Neil as a newcomer to the office who learns the game quickly and is soon playing as hard and dirty as the men.
Keep your eye on them and on the whole behind-the-scenes story, and you'll learn a lot about how government really works and be fascinated and entertained satisfyingly enough, without needing epic elevation.
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