This House

James Graham
Jonathan Church Productions, Headlong, National Theatre and Chichester Festival Theatre
Festival Theatre, Malvern

Labour whips James Gaddas, Natalie Grady, Martin Marquez, Tony Turner and David Hounslow Credit: Johan Persson
Harry Kershaw (Heseltine). Whip Giles Cooper looks on Credit: Johan Persson
Exultant Tories: Giles Cooper, William Chubb, Nicholas Lumley and Matthew Pidgeon Credit: Johan Persson

It is the time of the Labour governments of 1974-79, the last before 18 years of Conservative rule, a turbulent time when Harold Wilson was replaced by Jim Callaghan, Ted Heath defeated by Mrs Thatcher, Jeremy Thorpe by himself.

Yet James Graham’s play is Hamlet without the prince. None of those politicians appear, and there is no talk of policies either, except a brief mention of the '70s referendum on staying in the Common Market. “Let’s put it to the people and put it to bed,” someone suggests. Really.

It’s more about attitudes, the Labour old guard taunting “I’m all right Jack, sod the rest” Tory toffs, their adversaries advising the incoming socialists on how to sit properly on the better a class of chair given to government: “Imagine it’s a hay bale,” offers one. “Or a coal sack.”

But principally it’s about the Machiavellian machinations of the whips, the engine room that on one side kept Labour in power for nearly five years despite wafer-thin or non-existent majorities, the strains perhaps contributing to the deaths of no fewer than 17 Labour MPs during the period.

Deals are done, promises made and broken. A rebel is reeled in because he’s found to be a trainspotter and gets a seat on the railways committee.

Most of the MPs are caricatures, the preening John Stonehouse who faked his suicide, half-crazy Scottish, Welsh and Irish nationalists, and the crass Conservative, elected to his horror for Redditch, a place he loathes, when really he wanted Cheam, or Chester, or “a nice town beginning with Ch.”

Then there’s the infamously mace-wielding Michael Heseltine. It’s a nice touch on the arcane procedures of the place that the Speaker refused to continue the session not because of the incident, but because Heseltine had replaced it the wrong way round.

The stakes are raised when Tories abandon the pairing system by which one side agrees to absent a member when someone on the other side is sick or otherwise unable to attend a vote.

Traffic lights are fixed and a helicopter raised to get an absent minister to the House in time, MPs sleep in offices, and desperately ill members are called in, one in an oxygen mask, another—bleeding—from a post-op ward.

In one incident—surely too farcical not to be true—an MP is trapped by the lobby door as he tries to dash in for a committee vote. Mr Speaker, forced to adjudicate, decides that as two arms and a leg were inside the room, the vote was won, by 22 votes to 22¾.

If there’s a message, it’s about compromise and co-operation, and surprisingly it’s the seemingly unprincipled whips who win one’s sympathy, rather than the ratty Audrey Wise, member for Coventry South West, who threatens the existence of her own government by constant rebellion.

Rock music interjections add little to the entertainment, but Rae Smith’s set manages to evoke both the conspiratorial clannishness of the offices and the broader battlegrounds of the Palace of Westminster.

Martin Marquez, James Gaddas and Tony Turner lead admirably for Labour, while William Chubb, Matthew Pidgeon and Giles Cooper give as good as they get for the Conservatives, not in the corridors but in the smoke-filled rooms of power.

Reviewer: Colin Davison

Are you sure?