“Does anyone want to come and sit on the stage?” Normally such a question from a stage manager would fill me with dread but the opportunity to pose as a Westminster MP on stage in James Graham’s play This House appealed to my inner activist. My hand went up and there I found myself, on the Garrick’s stage, ready to watch the play from the wings.
This House focuses on the hung parliament of 1974 and the delicate majority that the Labour government held from 1975-79 but it has so many parallels with today you could be forgiven for thinking you were watching a dramatisation of 2016’s parliament. Most hilarious in this regard was a comment on the European Referendum ‘put it to the people, then put it to rest’! The play is set in the Chief Whips’ offices – these men and women (well, there’s one woman) are tasked with keeping MPs in line and making sure they vote when required, and in the right way.
James Graham is a truly excellent playwright; his political theatre is relatable, funny, emotional and enjoyable to watch. This House is no exception. The Tory and Labour MP’s come from clearly distinct class background and the interaction between the two groups is fascinating. The nicknames Graham has created for different groups in Parliament are also fantastic – ‘aristotwats’ (Tories) and ‘odds and sods’ (minority parties) really make you feel as if you’re in on the macho jokes. Graham also makes the plot clear without over explanation. So often in plays of this length you can find yourself checking the time as it drags slowly by, but in This House there is barely a moment where you could take yourself away from the action to read your watch.
Designer Rae Smith has created an incredibly lifelike House of Commons on the Garrick’s stage. There are green benches on which audience members (like myself) sit to make the atmosphere seem more like a real parliamentary session. Another thing that made this show so unique was the live band who added music at various points to correspond with the musical trends of the decade – be it disco or punk.
This House also has an excellent cast who, aside from being fantastic actors, are also required to sing at certain points during the show. Not what you’d expect from a play about politicians, but who knows what Theresa May’s cabinet gets up to behind closed doors. This really works in the context of the show though – maybe the Commons should think of starting up a choir!
Lauren O’Neil is fantastic as Ann Taylor, the only female member of the Whips office, and she nails the straight-talking role. Sarah Woodward and Matthew Pidgeon shine as ensemble members, taking on so many roles throughout the play but giving each their own distinguished character traits, be they the Right Honourable Member for Coventry South West or Chelmsford. Steffan Rhodri is also worthy of recognition as Walter Harrison, playing both to the character’s humorous and emotional aspects.
This House is an outstanding play, and one that I would not hesitate to recommend to anyone. Regardless of your interest in politics, this deconstruction of our country’s system of governance along with its focus on the more human aspect of politics will be of broad appeal.
This House is playing the Garrick Theatre until February 25 2017.
Photo: Johan Persson