Jonathan Church Productions, National Theatre, Chichester Festival Theatre and Headlong
Writer James Graham presents a witty, satirical account of the workings of Parliament from the perspective of the Government and Opposition Whips’ Offices, which are considered to be the ‘political engine room’ of the institution.
The action is set between the early '70s when Harold Wilson was struggling to survive with a tiny majority and the advent of Margaret Thatcher in 1975. Many familiar MPs make a brief passage across the stage, a ‘Members Chorus’ of 9 actors each playing at least four roles.
These brief vignettes lead us down memory lane, recalling eccentric personalities, extraordinary behaviour and significant events. The whole is held together by the members of the Whips’ Offices whose responsibility it is to persuade, cajole or bully MPs to vote in the Government’s best interest and avoid a ‘no confidence’ defeat.
There is intense rivalry between the Whips’ Offices, led for the Tories by the elegant, urbane and privileged Humphrey Atkins (William Chubb) and his more robust and wily deputy Jack Weatherill (Matthew Pidgeon); and on the Labour side a larger, earthier, coarse-speaking group mainly of ex-Trade Unionists led by Bob Mellish (Martin Marquez) and his deputy Walter Harrison, played by James Gaddas. There is one female member of the Labour Group (Natalie Grady) "better than all the men put together" but ultimately lacking in essential humanity.
Minor parties like the Liberals, and Scottish, Welsh and Irish Nationalists are known as ‘the Odds and Sods’ and only have to be wooed in times of difficulty. The two sides maintain a superficial veneer of courtesy when they meet but scathingly reject the values of the other side in private.
Crucial to the action is the Parliamentary procedure of ‘pairing’ when the opposing Whips meet when MPs are unavailable through illness or absence to vote for a bill and decide who will stand down (not vote) in order to achieve equal pairing. This becomes essential when Wilson is returned for a second term with a majority of three and the possibility of a ‘hung’ parliament. When the system breaks down sick or even dying MPs are wheeled into the House to be theoretically present when a vote is taken.
This is a brilliantly written play which moves at a fast pace and demands close attention. There is so much detail to absorb that inevitably some gets lost and a crash course in the events and personalities of the decade would have been a help. The wordiness of the play is leavened by its humour, the farcical presentation of individual characters, the punctuation of the action with music from an excellent small band of musicians led by Tom Green and delightful choreographed sequences by Scott Ambler performed by the whole company.
The set (Rae Smith) sits snugly on the Lyceum stage suggesting the cramped conditions in the Whips’ offices, there are stunning lighting effects and the clock of Big Ben dominates the action.
After the freneticism of most of the play, a moving conclusion shows that there is still room for generosity and simple humanity.
Reviewer: Velda Harris