This House ensemble © Craig Fuller
James Graham is the theatre’s chronicler of the nation, taking over from the position that David Hare used to revel in. His state of the nation plays throw us into the hub of the establishment and reveals the beating heart of the UK in both the political and the personal. His name establishing This House (2012) makes those who operate at the heart of politics feel both heroic and ridiculous. In a time when we feel particularly isolated from those who govern us, Graham’s play has done a bang-up job of humanising the power players in the Westminster bubble.
Originally conceived at the time when David Cameron and Nick Clegg played happy couples in the Rose Garden, Graham’s play looked at the previous time a minority government was formed after a divisive general election. 1974-1979 was a rocky time for a Labour Government that constantly fluctuated between -18 to +3 majorities. A time that political historians decried as a major loss for Labour and one in which they would eventually find themselves swept away by a grocers daughter from Grantham, the strength of Graham’s work is that he shows the almost heroic task the whips did in keeping a party in power who struggled to find an ounce of stability.
A dramatized re-telling of a chaos-filled five years, Graham’s play takes us into a chamber where old pairing rules are removed as the gloves come off, punches are thrown at key votes and Michael Heseltine spins a mace around in protest of what he views as a cheat. The faked death of an MP and the real-life shocking statistic that 17 Labour MPs passed away during their time in Government seem par for the course. The conflict of opposition parties is spelled out as Humphrey Atkins (Tommy Belshaw) the chief Tory whip states that the gap between government and opposition benches is exactly the width of two drawn swords. Democracy and parties coming together for the good of the nation come second to an adversary pull. It’s both a painful realisation and thrillingly theatrical in its demands.
Nik Partridge’s propulsive production gives the play a flowing energy. Tables and chairs are spun, choral singing gives fresh energy to classic seventies songs and the ensemble comes together to ensnare a haunted MP in their wave. It’s a long evening, but one that constantly keeps its clarity of storytelling alive in the space.
Within its 15-person ensemble, there are particularly powerful performances from Louise O’Dowd who switches accents and personas with aplomb, and Christopher Williams who imbues the lifelong Labour politician who is prepared to sacrifice his life for the political cause with a deep sense of pride and then pain as he realises his absence has cost them a vote of confidence. As the whips, Peter Burley and Tommy McAteer bring out the gruffness and kindness of the red side looking to keep a steady ship while Belshaw is all entitled leadership as the Blue chief whip. Yet ultimately, it’s the two deputy whips, Archie Fisher’s Conservative and Francis Redfern’s Labour who become the heart, two men with ideological differences but over five years of sparring find a mutual admiration. It’s interesting that in a play that doesn’t offer its own author’s politics, it’s the Tory who is prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice.
It all takes place in Marta Sitarz’s Big Ben backdropped set, with Joe Stather’s projections conjuring up debating chambers and Miami beaches. It’s a cracking evening of theatre, one that shines a light on Britain’s political past while reminding us of our turbulent present.