West Yorkshire Playhouse (UK Tour)
UK Tour Schedule
‘This House’ is a play that does more than entertain and more than instruct- although it does both very well. What James Graham’s insightful depiction of seventies political manoeuvrings achieves is to make the audience engage with the very concept of government as an institution- what it is, how it functions, how it fails, how it succeeds- and how very often it only just succeeds. Back in the day Parliament and its workings was an institution that most of us didn’t know much about but more or less trusted to do the job- we might not agree with the decisions that were made but there was a generally held belief that as a body it worked. Now with televised sittings, scandals such as MP’s expenses and the whole notion of ‘post truth’ that belief and trust has been irrevocably challenged; what ‘this House’ does is show us the mosaic of humanity behind the complexities of whips, sittings, voting and lobbying.
Graham’s account of the period in the mid to late seventies when the Labour government was with increasing desperation trying to shore up the slenderest of majorities is told with energy and vision by director James Brining through a blend of short charged exchanges and choreographed interludes with images such as MP’s strutting purposefully waving papers to a background of live music. This dynamic breaks any tendency for the play to fall into the ‘drama documentary’ style of theatre; the images visually represent the challenges facing the Wilson/ Callaghan government in a way that’s far more dynamic and engaging than lengthy expositional speech- for example when an MP fakes his own suicide, reducing the government’s crucial majority he submerges beneath of mass of billowing blue silk in the most seventies of paisley underpants.
The manoeuvrings, the arguments, the increasingly desperate lengths Labour went through to win crucial votes serve as a timely reminder of the fragility of government. The government’s very human efforts to hang on to power may at times verge on the farcical (at one point MP’s are wheeled in with oxygen tanks) but show the principle and conviction beneath the politicking- a state of affairs doomed at the end when the Thatcher era ushered in a very different set of principles. Mention of Issues such as hung parliaments, devolution and the EU show us that the challenges faced back then are ones that haven’t lost either their potency or relevance.
The play is served well by a strong – and in these days of austerity, refreshingly large- cast playing multiple roles. Martin Marquez and James Gaddish stand out as the ‘men of the people’ labour whips, given solid antagonism and opposition by William Chubb and Matthew Pidgeon as their Tory Counterparts. Natalie Grady provides sharp contrast as Ann Taylor, the woman MP finding her way in a male dominated world and Louise Ludgate provides a show stealing turn as Audrey Wise the Labour MP who insisted on voting according to her conscience and beliefs- much like the current Labour leader.
The large cast of characters played by this cast can make it difficult at times to differentiate who each person is- despite the novel device of having their identify announced by the Speaker of the House. This can mean it’s hard for the audience to get a sense of the people and their principles beyond what is immediately superficial- however this is the way I feel when contemporary current affairs programmes such as watching ‘Question Time’ and it didn’t impact in any way on my enjoyment of the play.
At the end of a thought provoking very enjoyable evening I was left with an overall impression of Parliament as nothing so much as a dysfunctional collective of humans- and that humans, as daily news from places such as the Commons and the White House are more than capable of messing up. However whatever one’s thoughts on the Parliamentary system in the words of one of the characters: the British system of democracy is one that we’ve exported all over the world- and it’s one export that has both lasted and prospered.
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