This House – National Theatre

Theatre / Words

17 Mar 13

James Graham’s political drama This House has been truly voted in at the National; its stint at the Cottesloe succeeded by a residence at the main, Olivier auditorium.

Describing Labour’s fraught administration of 1974-9 – Wilson’s hung parliament; the economic destitution – the play appeals as much to contemporary concerns as to a nostalgic era of old-fashioned sportsmanship and repartee in the Commons.

Like The Thick of It, this is political struggle unseen by the public eye. It’s an anguished business, but also a game of wits and invective between the rival whips – uneasy corridor-mates vying not only for support from the assorted “odds and sods” in the chamber, but also for the comfiest office chairs.

We witness this period of stalemate vent its desperation with increasing surrealism: Michael Heseltine’s infamous swinging of the mace, and sick ministers desperately helicoptered in to attend ballots. A stand-out episode sees a determined Tory squashed in a door-frame by opposition ministers, only for the Speaker to declare Conservative victory by “three-quarters of a body”.

With a Big Ben clock face dominating the backdrop, and replica chamber benches rotating as the action unfolds, Jeremy Herrin writes the trope of hidden “mechanics” large. Politics becomes spectacle – and while the party leaders themselves are pushed behind the scenes, the rivalries on show are classic theatre.

Of particular interest is the varying abhorrence/bonhomie between the deputy whips – pragmatic Labourite versus presentable Tory (Philip Glenister and Charles Edwards respectively). There is inevitably some pandering to caricature in the robust, northern reds – headed up by Phil Daniels – and the “aristotwatic” blues of the south, led by Julian Wadham.

That doesn’t lend itself to believability, and nor does the lack of reference to plight of Joe Bloggs in a time of blackouts, strikes, and anxiety. Though we see MPs driven to attempted suicide, you wonder if the action’s ultimate motivation is pride.

The only non-political figure we are introduced to is the nurse of a terminally ill Labour MP – whose absence from the Callaghan vote of no confidence made all the difference. It’s a tragic vignette of which This House is full, which do enough to ensure it carries an appropriate weight of human tragedy and frustration.