As someone born in the mid-nineties I was not well-versed in the political events that unfolded from 1974-1979 – unlike 80% of the audience of the Garrick Theatre on Saturday afternoon. However, This House by James Graham presented me with an extremely engaging, witty picture of a seventies Labour party fighting to stay in power in a hung parliament, and the behind-the-scenes deals and compromises they negotiated with the Tory government, soon to be Thatcher’s. Here we see politics presented as a game of numbers, with the effects of events on the lives of humans never actually considered. Labour manages to pass motions on the strength of a mere handful of votes, after whipping and begging even the very ill to come in and pass through the division lobbies.
The stage is a mixture of the Whips’ offices and the debating chamber in the House of Commons under the face of Big Ben. The characters swap offices at the beginning of the play as Labour comes into power with the smallest of majorities. Characters cross the stage and knock at thin air to enter the opposing offices as the play begins to resemble a sophisticated farce. Some members of the audience are allowed to sit on the stage throughout the performance on replicas of the famous green benches. The Speaker’s chair moves and a wooden panel is often lifted to reveal a parliamentary bar which is fully functioning in the interval! This mobile set, the choreographed moves and music (the excellent band’s repertoire includes Bowie’s ‘Rock and Roll Suicide’ and Phil Daniels gives an accomplished performance of the, aptly named, ‘Five Years’) were unexpected but thoroughly appreciated.
It is unlikely this play would pass the Bechdel test given there is a huge lack of female roles – which, to be fair, is accurate and not at all surprising when parliament continues even now to be massively under-represented by women. I have to say I did find it hard not to feel slightly sickened watching various men in suits march on stage, and, in general, get all the best lines! Graham, however, writes a strong female lead for MP Ann Taylor played by Lauren O’Neil. Starting as a fairly timid ‘Northern lass’ in a ‘man’s world,’ the Bolton girl ends up, to put it bluntly, taking absolutely no shit from anyone. Another cast member of note is Dave Coaches from Gavin and Stacy (or Steffan Rhodri if you want) playing another bluff Northerner, Walter Harrison.
As the play ended, with the Labour government defeated on a vote of no confidence, I found myself thinking: ‘Oh god, they won’t know what’s hit them with Thatcher getting in’ (an intellectual thought I know) and suddenly the present day flooded back in. We did not elect our current Prime Minister. A reality TV star is President of America. We have just voted to leave the European Union – something that is briefly alluded to in the play causing uncomfortable laughter. The play’s programme mentions the killing of Airey Neave MP for Abingdon in a car bomb (something just outside of the time frame of the play) and only months ago the MP for Batley and Spen, Jo Cox, was murdered. The actor playing the MP for Batley and Morley (one of Jo’s predecessors) breaks the fourth wall after the last applause and speaks movingly of Jo’s dedication to her constituency and asked us to donate to the charities close to her heart and support the ‘HOPE not hate’ campaign as she did. Somehow, it was this simple plea that I found the most moving speech of the afternoon and it had me fighting tears as I exited the theatre.
The play is a triumph. You will laugh, you will cry and you will wish this ‘post-truth society’ and its politics would get a fucking grip.
This House is at the Garrick, London until 25th February 2017