Whilst 2016 may have provided enough political theatre to see many through a mini lifetime there is something oddly comforting and enjoyable about watching the cogs in motion in James Graham's genius This House which has finally made its long awaited transfer to the West End. Having collectively lived through a hung Parliament we as an audience have suffered the effects of a minority government first hand, but rarely have we seen or begun to understand the behind-the-scenes workings so effectively.
This House shows us the Labour minority governments of 1974-79 flexing between a hung parliament and later the thinnest of majorities that sees the whips offices rally behind each and every MP from across the house in order to effectively govern, and in the case of Labour, avoid a crucial vote of no confidence. Under the shadow of Big Ben's clock face that clicks in real time until it symbolically breaks, we're shown the inner bowels of the Palace of Westminster and the people who work within. We're introduced to ancient customs, laws and gentleman's agreements that keep our country governing, or at the very least, attempting to, and the personal frustrations this inherently brings.
It's ferociously well researched, yet never once feels too didactic or pedagogical. Graham finds the humour in both situation and character, but leaves the satire to the audience to draw their own lines between the obvious dramatic irony with our contemporary situation. The Labour Party is described as a “Mad Hatter's Tea Party” and eyebrows are raised at ideas of devolution as well as Britain's decision to be part of Europe, raising titters of recognition across the audience.
The beauty of this drama however is that it is inclusive enough to a general audience whilst never undermining the assumed historical knowledge or eccentric British customs that it aims to explore. Sufficiently signposted yet never patronising, Graham succeeds at finding that tricky blend between historical fiction and convincing drama. For all the processes and systems involved within the narrative itself the taught and all encompassing script places human drama at its very core, making this a relatable yet deeply human exploration of pride, allegiance and personal commitment to a cause.
Graham flexes his skills at portraying real-life characters with ease, creating idiosyncrasies and personal manners that bring each to life For all the talent in the extended ensemble Steffan Rhodri and Nathaniel Parker shine as the Labour deputy whip Walter Harrison and his opposite Jack Weatherill who form a genial and competitive bond that comes to symbolise the general working relationships of those who are forced to compromise throughout the building. Sarah Woodward displays a chameleon-like quality to each of her stoic characters, with the dour Audrey Wise champion of socialist principles holding strong alongside Lauren O'Neil's quietly powerful Ann Taylor who would go on to become Government Chief Whip throughout Tony Blair's 1998 government.
The real genius of the production is Jeremy Herrin's spellbinding direction that uses Rae Smith's multifunctional set of the House of Commons to become a flexible 'every space' with relative ease and deftness of movement. The mechanics of his direction are highly visible, but rather than appear gimmicky they instead become the piece's highest virtue. His highly skilled ensemble disappear, change and reappear in a matter of seconds, shifting from character to character with the ease and skill of a well-oiled and efficient machine. Paule Constable's outstanding lighting design highlights Smith's set, complete with an impression of Westminster Hall that breaks out of the insular governmental working space with an appropriate ethereal feel.
Politics buffs and historians will find much to savour in this accurate and finely executed exploration of British government at a time of increased pressure yet the play holds its own as a convincing and utterly compelling piece of drama. An unmissable and commanding theatrical tour de force.
This House tickets are now on sale.
What the Press Said...
"The whole ensemble contributes to a thrilling play that both relives history and transcends it."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"This House is a must for those who want to learn more (or be reminded about) the very peculiar workings of Westminster and its often quietly heroic occupants."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"One of Graham's great virtues is that he can be very funny, without ever stooping to easy cynicism."
Paul Taylor for The Independent