National Theatre, Chichester Festival Theatre and Headlong
"We've got five years..." join in the cast with the live rock band—which, if you recognised the earlier "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide" and know your Ziggy Stardust you would have predicted was coming up—and that is the battle on for this Labour government to cling on for their five-year term with no overall majority a lead over the Conservatives in single figures.
The people with the real job of keeping in government—or, conversely, ousting the other side—are not, however, in 10 Downing Street but in the whips' offices in the Palace of Westminster, and so that is where Graham sets the majority of his play. In these two offices, the Labour and Tory whips plan strategies to make things as awkward as possible for the other side and try to talk the "odds and sods"—the handful of Liberal, Irish, Welsh and Scottish MPs whose votes for once can really make a difference—into voting for them, or at least not voting against them.
This is a time when MPs were not career politicians right from leaving university with a degree in politics; there were a few retired majors on the Tory benches and some old miners and factory workers on the Labour side—many of the latter were literally dragged from their sick beds to take part in crucial votes. The stakes were always high as even a minor loss for the government could trigger a 'no confidence' vote that could see them ousted from power.
Audience reactions depend entirely on age. Unlike the playwright, I'm old enough to remember this time but I was too young to be aware of the details. A slightly older colleague, however, said he often recognised who a politician was even before a word was said, which is quite an achievement with most of the cast playing many different roles. Politicians are announced by the speaker by their constituency names even within scenes; when a minor candidate to challenge the Tory leadership is spoken of as "Finchley", a murmur ran through the audience, even before that person was referred to as "she".
But it's only about politics in the sense that there are two parties whose job is entirely to defeat the other side—policy is only discussed as part of an agenda or as leverage to get certain people or parties to side with them. It's a game of strategy that can often get heated and very childish, such as when the Speaker is called to rule whether a vote counts when the voter wasn't entirely in the room when the door was closed at the appointed deadline (he has a large bruise on his leg to prove it).
It's all played like an exciting war game that is tense and thrilling for nearly three hours. The cast are superb: on the government side, Martin Marquez is the rallying Chief Whip Bob Mellish who walks from his post when he backs the wrong side, replaced by the more timid Michael Cocks (Tony Turner). David Hounslow is older MP Joe Harper and Natalie Grady is self-aware 'token woman' Ann Taylor.
The Tory whips are lead by William Chubb's snobbish Humphrey Atkins with Giles Coober as junior member Fred Silvester. However the real work is done by the deputies who understand and respect one another and are the only ones who act like adults at crucial times: James Gaddas as Labour's Walter Harrison and Matthew Pidgeon as Conservative Jack Weatherill. Another 11 actors fill the many other roles.
It's a thrilling and often very funny ride through '70s politics at a time of great turmoil—which came to an end with a major political change in 1979—that will make you wonder why anyone would ever want to become a politician.
Reviewer: David Chadderton