at the Cottesloe Theatre, Wednesday 26th September 2012
Comparisons between This House and The Thick of It are inevitable (not least because Vincent Franklin appears in both) but important. The fact that this new sort of biting, honest satire is popular at the moment demonstrates the general distrust of the political elite and their system. We all utilise a kind of doublethink, believing that we’re excersising our democratic right by voting but knowing deep down that it makes a negligible difference. This sort of satire helps that disappointment become more palatable, as we are allowed to laugh at those who are supposed to be the best brains and leaders in the country.
James Graham’s This House manages to do that whilst offering up a deeply human look at the workings behind parliament. The play tells the story of the 1974-9 parliament, showing how both parties did all they could to win a majority with each vote. The narrative thrust centres around the two whip offices, with Deputy Chief Whips Walter Harrison and Jack Weatherill providing the beating heart of the Labour and Conservative benches respectively.
Graham says in his programme note that the reason he chose to write about this parliament “is because the truth itself is so remarkable”, as ill and dieing MPs were wheeled into the Houses of Parliament to vote so their party could win by a narrow majority, and had to beg the “odds and sods” to vote with them. Naturally, one’s own politics very much come into play here, but to me This House is a loud plea for an overhall of our current system. As we are at one point told, Britain is one of the few democracies to have parliamentary parties sat opposite one another in order to argue rather than sat with one another in order to cooperate, causing friction and rivalries where there could be compromise and discussion.
Though Graham clearly revels writing these larger-than-life, stoic and principled characters, there are clearly tones which are somewhat sinister. Why should politics (i.e. governing the lives of millions of people) rely so heavily on underhand tactics and sly bargains? On the whole, these ministers are so bound up in their own careers and enmities that they care little about the rest of the country. And though there is a glimmer of truth in Harrison’s “British democracy may work if it weren’t so bloody reliant on people”, that doesn’t get away from the fact that British democracy itself is archaic and nonsensical; if it were created now, the system would look nothing like that.
It’s easy to see the relevencies to our current political concerns. Whether you believe the play is asking us to be thankful that we don’t have a hung parliament or disappointed with what we have is up to you, but Graham clearly echoes things which we’ve been discussing since 2010 like political “cooperation” and “compromise”, where parties have to do deals with parties they’d rather not talk to. Equally, the Tories don’t come off well here (when do they?), as they complain about the same old things and talk about their adeptness for government (“Conservative governments fail because they believe they are entitled to power. Labour governments fail because they don’t”), but though it’s clear where Graham’s own sympathies lie, the play is never in danger of becoming partisan. More subtly, the references to the rigged devolution vote in 1979 preceeds what could be an unfair vote in Scotland in 2014.
Graham’s writing isn’t quite as cutting as The Thick Of It (though who said it should be?) and sometimes becomes a bit too descriptive when explaining parliamentary terms (the interjections of “the member for Coventry South-West” etc from the Speaker every time someone enters is also a little frustrating, though perhaps necessary given the number of people). The script is at its best when small, honest discussions are being had, and for this reason two scenes in act two stand out, both of which occur between Harrison and Weatherill. Both dialogues focus around their disguntlement at the way things have turned out as they come to realise they have more in common than they’d like to admit. Played by Philip Glenister and Charles Edwards respectively, they are perfectly matched and each show men trying to do their best with what they’ve got whilst trying to make a difference. They both embody their party’s stereotype – Glenister a rough Northerner and Edwards a prim Southerner – but each recognises their parties are not the simple black-and-white they once were.
Jeremy Herrin’s fast-paced production serves the play well, though it does at times feel a little clumsy. Rae Smith’s design is a small coup, placing a reconstructed House of Commons in the Cottesloe, with the members’ seats and viewing gallery become spaces where the audience watch the theatre of parliament. It’s essentially in traverse with a few more exits and entrances, allowing for some speedy scene changes and montage sequences. I say it’s a little clumsy because effort has been made to include Enron-style movement interludes (but with MPs instead of bankers) and Frantic Assembly-inspired physical theatre (choreographed by Scott Ambler), but they don’t quite seem tight enough. Nonetheless, it’s good to see more directors employing this style and using ensemble casts to create more visually engaging pieces.
One wonderful moment comes in the middle of act two, as discussion begins about whether or not the parliament will last a full five years. Bowie’s “Five Years” is sung (perhaps a little obvious, but it’s a bloody good tune and complements nicely the use of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” in act one) as the characters congregate on stage in a sombrely directed routine. It’s perhaps a little emotionally manipulative but for some reason it feels truly tragic that this parliament will end soon.
Stephen Warbeck’s score is key in the show’s success, switching from jazz in the early years of the parliament to a more rocky style in later years, accentuating jokes and providing a musical progression to support the narrative movement. Paule Constable’s lighting is fluent, but it does sometimes feel, for want of a better word, flimsy, and it can’t be helped thinking a little more could be done to incorporate it into the production.
The cast are given a plethora of glorious one liners (“This isn’t a parliament, this is fucking purgatory”, “It’s only not perfect because no one has the guts to challenge it”) and move through them brilliantly. In the red corner, Vincent Franklin’s slightly pathetic Michael Cocks takes over after the resignation of Bob Mellish (played here by Howard Ward due to a bereavement in the family of Phil Daniels. Ward read from a script, but it’s testament to the professionalism of the National and its companies that this was of little hindrance). Perhaps one of the most interesting characters in the play is Ann Taylor (the only female whip), played by Lauren O’Neil. She provides a glimmer of what a new future could look like, and is in effect Thatcher’s opposite. Representing the opposition benches, Julian Wadham (playing Chief Whip Humphrey Atkins) is a slimy, old-fashioned being who cannot keep up with the constant movement in this administration.
What This House does so brilliantly is educate and entertain simultaneously (though I was aware of the difficulties which faced this parliament, the details were unknown to me). Graham juggles humour and pathos brilliantly and shows that a system based on tradition and requiring honour to keep it ticking along is in dire need of change. Herrin stage manages this production to show the Labour government were perhaps a little out of their depth and may have done a little too much damage. But as Maggie’s voice rings out in the final moments that “Where there is dischord, may we bring harmony”, it’s difficult not to shudder; this lot may have been bad, but my God they were better than what was to come.