Paul T Davies reviews James Graham’s play This House now streaming on the National Theatre at Home platform until 3rd June.
National Theatre at Home
Streaming until 3 June.
A hung Parliament, deepening economic crises, discontent among the voters, battle lines drawn along party affiliations. James Graham’s superb play, first screened in 2013, examines the tumultuous political years between 1974-79, when the Labour Party had a wafer-thin majority that hovered between 4 and 1, skilfully shows us the mechanics of democracy, the deals and sacrifices. His trademark style of imparting a wealth of information both entertainingly and educationally is in evidence, using old fashioned techniques of chalk and board and conversation to condense years of exposition into a lively, overall, fast-moving production.
Told chiefly through the offices of the Labour and Tory whips, class lines are clearly drawn from the outset. Graham uses broad strokes to introduce the characters, mushy peas and saveloys for the Labour, opera and military references for the Tories. But the picture becomes refined as the play progresses, and the drama feeds on the astonishing events that happened- the fake suicide of John Stonehouse, the votes whether to stay in or out of the EU, the “gentlemen’s agreement” of pairing, which becomes crucial not just to the drama but to history- all told by a terrific ensemble. The sparring between Labour Deputy Whip Walter Harrison, (Reece Dinsdale) and the Tory Whip Jack Weatherhill, (Charles Edwards), is the spine of the play and they are superb opponents, assisted by an energetic Phil Daniels in the first half. What Graham does very well is to humanise the politics, and the astonishing toll it took on the party, 17 Labour MPs died as a result of the strain of overwork and keeping the party in slim power. Lauren O’Neil is excellent as Ann Taylor, a rare female in this boy’s club, dealing well with the casual sexism of the time.
The need to be present in the chamber when a majority is so slim provides the heart of the play. The Member for Batley, a beautiful performance by Christopher Goodwin, battles ill health to be in the chamber and vote for Labour throughout the period. Until, because he is literally at death’s door, he isn’t asked to attend the last vote of no confidence, and the opposition win by one vote. This one moment leads to the election of Margaret Thatcher, on such sixpences does history turn.
Director Jeremy Herrin gives the play the epic staging it deserves, and live music helps the transitions run smoothly- the band reflect the growing punk influence as the years pass by! Although the pace does slow a little in a slightly overlong second half, there is an immense clarity to the production, (such as the Speaker of the House introducing each MP), that keeps the audience involved. What also comes across is the respect that the whips have for each other, and it made me feel nostalgic for a time when politics seemed less tribal than it is now.