James Graham’s political comedy is set in the 1970’s but don’t be fooled. It’s as topical today as then, with its bickering fights within parties, an unruly House of Commons, back-stabbing, soaring ambition and downright unpleasantness.
There’s also one or two men and women of principle , trying not to be crushed by the weight of working in a fetid atmosphere of hung Parliaments, votes of confidence and very sick MPs literally dying in the building – though of course tradition says you can’t actually do that !
Most but not all of the semi-famous politicos portrayed are now dead, and in a clever device many of the voting fodder are not referred to by their real names but by the name of their seat – Chelmsford, Ebbw Vale, Peebles.
Graham’s skill is to blend historical events – the breakdown of the iconic Big Ben, and the faked death of Minister John Stonehouse, the short-lived Lib/Lab pact and Mrs T’s rise to the leadership with personal tragedies and triumphs. The Tories shown here are all by and large bastards , the Irish MPs thick as a bog, the Scots and Liberals duplicitous, and Labour earnest and driven, if not always loyal.
The play – set in a mock Commons chamber and the whips’ offices, also fleetingly goes to the crypt and up to the bell tower with its famous clock face looming down.
At times the machinations get the better of the action and director Jeremy Herrin papers-over complexities in the story with high-paced movement between scenes.
We never see Wilson, Heath, Callaghan or Thatcher but in the wider group there are outstanding performances from Phil Daniels as the driven but foul-mouthed Labour Chief Whip , and Vincent Franklin as his apparently bumbling, angry but deep-down good egg successor.
Julian Wadham is an unctuous Tory Chief Whip, glorying in his opponents little defeats and gleefully ruthless. Charles Edwards, as his deputy is mostly honourable, smooth and scheming as the Savile Row tailor made good.
And Graham attempts to draw lessons – only two-party adversarial politics works in the end . To hell with co-operation and compromise , he tells us though of course that’s what finally works.
There are wonderful moments of dark comedy – a Member at death’s door, may not actually get through the voting lobby – “ is he alive ? “ a Whip asks. Comes the reply “ It doesn’t matter; he’s here.”
If you’re obsessed with the musings of the Norman Smiths and Adam Boultons of this world , as I am, you’ll love it all, though the media aren’t a target of Graham’s sharp wit in this play. He saved them for his Murdock story Ink, which I hope was filmed and will be shown sometime.
In the meantime it’s the ayes to the right and the no’s to the left that must content us .
This House is on the NT’s @home YouTube till Thursday 4 June. Please donate if you can to bring live theatre back. You can watch it here:
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