The Theatreguide.London Review
Garrick Theatre Winter 2016-2017
Fascinating, inventively theatrical and (dare I say it?) even educational, James Graham's peep behind the Parliamentary curtain makes its delayed but very welcome West End appearance after its National Theatre premiere in 2012.
Graham is interested – and makes us interested – in how Parliament works, in particular how the party whips get out the vote day after day.
He sets the play in the 1970s, when Labour ruled but without a clear majority, so the party had constantly to create ad hoc coalitions with individual Liberals, Scottish Nationalists and other non-Tories.
We watch as the Labour whips deal, wheedle, coerce and horse-trade for individual votes, only to have to do the same thing the next time a vote arises. Meanwhile the Tory whips have the somewhat easier job of just getting in their way as much as possible.
The playwright uses fictionalised versions of actual MPs of the period, but generally refers to them by their constituencies rather than their names.
Most audience members can pick up the references to the never-seen female Tory leader Finchley, but you'd have to be a real politics buff to identify most of the rest.
And that's good, because it keeps the play from descending into historical gossip and lets us focus on the drama of the political machinations.
In my 2012 review I compared this play to a police procedural, the kind of crime novel that is built on the day-to-day drudgery of detective work rather than big flashy moments. And it is the really satisfying comprehension of 'Oh, so that is how it works' that carries the evening.
In 2012 I also complained that this down-and-dirty story sat uncomfortably with the play's few philosophical or ethical questions. But either James Graham has rewritten it or director Jeremy Herrin has found ways around the problem, because I had no such qualms this time.
Even the punctuating appearances of a rock band and moments of choreographed group movements feel part of the whole, and contribute to the purely theatrical vitality of what could but never does descend into static talkiness.
There is an overall tension and forward impetus to the play, in Labour's knowledge that their days are numbered and their determination that victory will consist of hanging on as long as possible.
And there are individual dramatic moments, like an almost trivial bit of rule-bending leading the other guys to fight back hard, or a dedicated party member willing to rise from his all-but-deathbed to show up for a vote.
Under Jeremy Herrin's assured direction a large cast double and quadruple roles to fill the stage with bustle, while the few figures we get to know are nicely rounded out with personalities that may or not be those of their real-world counterparts but are fully satisfying theatrically.
Phil Daniels as the harried Labour Chief Whip and Malcolm Sinclair as his calm and patrician Tory counterpart, and in particular their respective chief assistants played by Steffan Rhodri and Nathaniel Parker, carry the weight of the evening ably and stylishly.
You don't have to know much or even care much about politics to be caught up by the drama and theatricality of This House. And you will come away from it knowing and caring a great deal more, while having been thoroughly entertained.
(You can read our review of the 2012 production HERE.)
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