National Theatre, Chichester Festival Theatre and Headlong
Quarry Theatre, West Yorkshire Playhouse
If you feel like UK politics is unprecedentedly screwy now, James Graham’s fascinated foray into the minority Labour government of the '70s might offer some context. I’m not sure it’s reassuring to realise that our ancient systems of rule, “riddled with venerable tradition and slow decay” as Nick Clegg puts it in a programme note, have been that way for longer than our lifetimes. But it is enlightening.
Graham’s play debuted, to great acclaim, at the National Theatre in 2012 and has since enjoyed a wildly successful West End transfer; it now begins a lengthy tour. If anything, the show has gained in resonance since the collapse of the Cameron coalition government—of which Clegg was an architect—and the most recent referendum on membership of the European Union. There have been tweaks to the text, but even without them the fabric of the play, examining clashes of ideology and pragmatism, the stubborn clinging to power, and—mostly, overwhelmingly—the crucial role of pedantic protocol in all the business of government, is at times wincingly relevant.
This is by no means the first time Graham has revealed his obsession with parliamentary protocol, real-life events and historical figures. His award-winning 2006 play Eden’s Empire dealt with a slightly earlier period: the Suez Crisis and the floundering failure of Churchill’s deputy and heir apparent, Anthony Eden.
Unlike in that play, the more famous figures behind This House’s narrative remain in the shadows: we never see Callaghan or Wilson directly, and the up-and-coming grocer’s daughter who was to sweep away the tatters of socialist Labour in the 1979 General Election is named only by her seat, Finchley. Despite this, the occasional soundbite referencing her rise to power garnered gut-reaction hisses from the Leeds audience.
The dramatic choice to set the action in the (cliché klaxon) “engine room” of UK politics, the Whips’ offices, is inspired, and lends the play most of its interest. It enables Graham to show us the backroom deals and manoeuvrings of the parties in the face of a fine balance of power, and to avoid the traps of personality politics. These characters (nonetheless based on the real movers and shakers involved) are vividly, warmly sketched and provide a sense of the collective effort that running, and opposing, a Government demands.
The theatrical device of having the Speaker of the House announce the entrance of the various MPs who move through the story helps keep track of a dizzying range of doubling in an already enormous cast. But neatly distinguished characterisations from the whole ensemble and the confident clarity of Graham’s storytelling helps too.
Given that the main story is one of an embattled Labour party scrabbling to form coalitions and compromises with the Liberals, the Scottish, Welsh and Irish nationals, and the “odds and sods”, with the Tories swallowing their pride to attempt to sweet-talk the same, there is a natural tendency to interpret Labour as the protagonists and the Tories as the somewhat panto villains. (Witness, as mentioned, the hisses which greeted any mention of the member for Finchley.)
But it feels as though the script is just self-aware enough to make this work in its favour—and I should mention, too, that what might seem like a dry topic for careful scrutiny is in fact treated with verve, great wit, and almost sitcommy one-liners.
Jeremy Herrin and Jonathan O’Boyle’s direction speeds everything along so the nearly three-hour playing time moves quickly and slickly. The inclusion of a live band (and some well-chosen period music which evolves over the era covered) also adds energy to the piece. Some moments of pseudo-choreography felt a little flat for my tastes, falling foul of the overwhelming middle-aged white maleness of the majority of the ensemble. This is of course a factor of the politics of the time, but Graham has included narratives nodding to the growing empowerment of women in the political workplace.
For a play which feels so broad in scope, it’s startling to realise that it’s essentially set in two cramped offices, with occasional meetings in the echoing corridors of power, the Commons bar or beneath the (metaphor klaxon) faltering mechanism of Big Ben.
From these unassuming locations, Graham weaves a rip-roaring, rib-tickling night at the theatre—an intriguing glimpse behind the scenes of the febrile politics of minority government, but not just for avid listeners of the Today programme.
Reviewer: Mark Smith