This House (Online review)

This House (Online review)

I’m not sure how I came to miss James Graham’s play This House when it was first produced. There were two National Theatre runs, a West End transfer and national tour and it was live streamed to cinemas. Anyway, miss it I did, so I’m grateful for the current NT At Home streaming allowing me to put that right. The house referred to in the title is Parliament and Graham’s bruising account of events in the early 1970s is bound to strike a well timed chord in a week that has been almost totally dominated by political manoeuvrings in the corridors of power as Cummingsgate rumbles on.

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Rather than political advisers, however, the play focuses on the work and behaviour of the Party Whips, both governmental and oppositional, the political demigods who are described on Parliament’s website, rather coyly one feels, as those who “ help organise their party’s contribution to parliamentary business”. As Graham’s play makes clear, this is putting it mildly. The plotline covers several years during a period when majorities were slim and politics was a brutal business. The job of the Whips is to keep the members of the party online and onside and the play demonstrates the tactics and tricks used to do so. When a particular gentleman’s agreement about voting known as “pairing” breaks down the gloves truly come off. Regardless of their whereabouts or state of health the Whips drive the MPs through the voting chambers to a point which becomes farcical; even death does not halt the madness. Although I laughed heartily, it was a disturbing condemnation of the lengths to which politicians will go to in order to to gain and retain power.

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The play is brilliantly staged and fast moving with many short scenes that swiftly move the action on. Director Jeremy Herrin does a superb job of switching between intimate backstage chicanery to full scale parliamentary proceedings. There is even a very clever sequence set in the sea off Miami as rogue politician John Stonehouse fakes his own death. The main setting, however, is the Labour and Conservative Whips’ offices which are shown to be hotbeds of intrigue and scheming and where even the style of chairs is shown to be of huge significance. The Labour Office is initially dominated by Chief Whip Bob Mellish, a no-nonsense Cockney bruiser who makes an error of judgement in backing the wrong horse and has to go. This is a pity as Phil Daniels is undoubtedly one of the delights of the production. Mellish is succeeded by Michael Cocks, in Vincent Franklin’s fine performance a man who always seems to be somewhat out of his depth and who takes solace in the inner workings of Big Ben which, significantly, grinds to a halt. In the Conservative Office the conniving and disdainful Humphrey Atkins (Julian Wadham) amply demonstrates why British politics hinges on a question of class. The drama’s two main characters, however, are the deputies – Jack Weatherill for the Tories and Walter Harrison for Labour. They are played respectively by Charles Edwards and Reece Dinsdale, the former as an ice cool charmer in a Saville Row suit and the latter as a bluff gruff Yorkshireman in M & S polyester. Both actors give fine performances and suggest that were their characters not divided by politics they would actually be good friends – one even makes a highly selfless gesture towards the other which goes some way to allaying fears that politics is completely without honour.

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There is also a highly polished ensemble which, at the curtain call is revealed to contain only about half the actors I had imagined, such was their collective skill at bringing to life a whole range of characters. To keep us up to speed with who is in each scene the Speaker of the House announces them by their constituency title rather than their actual names although some are still recognisable as distinct individuals. Matthew Pidgeon contributes a pair of fine character studies as a sinuously effete Norman St John Stevas and a mace-wielding Michael Hesseltine. Christopher Godwin also does sterling work playing a dying socialist and a tartaned loyalist.

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While in lockdown James Graham has, purportedly, been writing a sequel; let’s hope it is as good as the original. The play is a thrilling roller coaster of shifting emotions and high drama. It brutally exposes the chauvinistic, jingoistic, juvenile and elitist behaviour of many of the politicians of the time. Power is shown to be almost totally male dominated although in the closing moments of the play Margaret Thatcher sweeps to power and things will never quite be the same again – except, as recent events have proved, in many respects they still are.

Production photos by Johan Persson

This House is available on NT At Home’s You Tube channel until June 4th. Click here
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