This new play by James Graham had its world premiere last September in the Cottesloe Theatre and has now moved across to the Olivier where the action has rather more room to breathe. And designer Rae Smith has taken advantage of the opportunity to latch-on to a trend which seems to be weaving its way round the West End, that of planting some of the audience right on the stage among the actors and the action.
'This House' takes us back to the period 1974-79 in the UK, when fashion led us to wear bell-bottom trousers and had (some of) us staggering around on mountainous platform shoes. In politics, there was stalemate, thanks to the voters leaving our politicians with no overall working majority, or small majorities that made it difficult to get legislation through parliament. At the beginning of the play the Conservatives under Edward Heath are turfed out, and replaced by the Labour party which had most seats in the 1974 election, though the Conservatives won the popular vote. Harold Wilson became Prime Minister of a minority government. Later on, Wilson resigned and Jim Callaghan took over as Labour leader and PM, and by the end of the play Margaret Thatcher ousts Ted Heath as Conservative leader.
The action focuses on two important offices in the House of Commons – the offices of the 'whips'. These are members of parliament who basically act as bully-boys, forcing their party MPs to vote when required and in the right way. Here, the focus is on the Conservative and Labour whips who vie to out-smart each other. On the one hand, the Labour whips try to get their legislation through the House of Commons, whereas the Conservatives aim to kill each bill, and to force a vote of 'no confidence' which, if passed, would lead to the downfall of the government. With the numbers of MPs on each side finely balanced, every member’s vote counts, and so the sick are duly wheeled in from their hospital beds to vote, and helicopters have to be used to get ministers back to the House in time to pass through the lobbies.
We never see any of the major players. Margaret Thatcher is simply mentioned as 'The Lady', and we don't get even a glimpse of Harold Wilson, James Callaghan or Ted Heath. But the play is not about the party leaders, it is a behind-the-scenes view of these turbulent times in parliament.
One of London's most famous landmarks – the Great Clock of Westminster looms over events in the form of a gigantic projection at the back of the cavernous stage area. But even this trusty timepiece falls victim to the general parliamentary malaise and malfunctions for the first time in its history. Oak panelling figures largely in the set design, and several angels gaze down incongruously from the lighting rigs on events below.
James Graham's well-researched, well-written script has an authentic ring to it, and is satirically humorous thanks to some neat gags. It highlights the obvious class distinctions between the two groups of whips but paints a rather dire portrait of British politicians, and by extension politicians in general. We meet so many MPs during the course of the play that the Speaker has to introduce them all by their constituency titles - a device which becomes a tad irritating after a while. There is plenty of good work in the acting department to enjoy, and it would be hard to see how Jeremy Herrin's direction could be bettered. Nevertheless, it feels a little long at a smidgen under 3 hours, even though it never never really flags.
The Labour party apparently struggled-on in power simply to keep out the Conservatives, and little real work seems to have got done in the legislation department. On the other hand, it is hard to see what else they might have done given the fact that voters could not summon up the necessary mandate to allow a single party to govern effectively. Though it is interesting merely from a historical point of view, the real value of James James Graham's play is the insight it affords into the effects the impasse had on politicians themselves.
If you cannot get to London for the show, you may be interested to know that it will be broadcast live to 250 UK cinemas and others worldwide on 16 May 2013 as part of the National's NT Live broadcasts.