Redbrick Editor William Baxter reviews the engrossing and unique political drama, This House, at the REP.
An unpopular government too weak to rule. A nation divided on the issue of greater European integration. Massive internal conflicts within both the Conservative and Labour parties. Class warfare, sexism and democratic failures at the forefront of the national conversation. Starting to sound familiar?
Enter This House, James Graham’s political heavyweight production charting the near non-existent rise and cataclysmic fall of first Harold Wilson and then James Callaghan’s 1974-79 Labour administration. Following a successful run at both the National and on the West End, the play has begun touring with a new cast. Running for just shy of three hours, Graham views the action through the two parliamentary Whips’ offices, nicely situated in their natural homes occupying the centre left and centre right of the stage.
Both Government and Opposition are given near-equal stage time, with the clearly divided stage creating an excellent open space that frequently flips between offices, the commons chamber, palace undercrofts and a parliamentary bar with ease. Meanwhile, the actors are constantly flanked by audience-filled commons benches on the wings – the right honourable members for the stalls are occasionally called on to cheer through divisions and no-confidence votes. Ominously hanging above the whole production is an intimidating reproduction of the face of Big Ben, serving as a clever metaphor for the government’s rapidly reducing time in office.
As is stressed by Graham in the production’s programme, This House is not intended to serve as a biography of any of the politicians featured nor a completely historically accurate retelling of the period. Time sequences have been altered and conversations imagined. Nevertheless, the atmosphere is captured seamlessly, not only through the questionable hairpieces and flared trousers but through pop culture references that manage to straddle the difficult line between niche and cringe. Almost all of these land well, though it has to be said that at times the script does cater a little too much to an audience old enough to remember them from the first time around. An elongated joke regarding a member’s new constituency of Bromsgrove and Redditch gets the biggest laugh of the evening, though this probably has more to do with local audience appeal – I’m sure that similar jokes land just as well wherever the production visits.
If you know your history then you’ll find few surprises across the course of the evening, though part of the beauty of This House has to be how it never gets too wrapped up in the minor matter of plot. Plenty happens: one MP fails to fake his own death, another gets arrested, a fight breaks out in the chamber and the Labour Whips have to manage the delicate matter of a loyal MP battling a terminal illness. Yet all of these events provide more of a glistening backdrop to the discourse on stage rather than as a series of points to be ticked off as actors go through the motions of recreating history. It is refreshing to see a historical piece that approaches events like these as humans actually do in real life.
Dialogue is consistently witty and engaging, with delivery dead-on nine times out of ten. Comic highlights include the MP for Coventry South West Audrey Wise (Louise Ludgate) counting coins to settle a fine, watched by a bemused group of Labour Whips including the production’s stand out performer James Gaddas playing Deputy Chief Whip Walter Harrison. The majority of the cast (excluding the Whips) play a huge variety of roles, each announced by the near-omnipresent Speakers of the House (Miles Richardson and Orlando Wells) sat at the back of the stage. This clarity helps; the rapid changing of costume and role for the ensemble could easily become confusing otherwise. It has to be said that the whole cast performs with exceptional versatility and successfully humanise every character into a true three-dimensional person – impressive when the relatively small size of the company is taken into account.
Whilst explanations like these do help (and the programme itself is invaluable for definitions and context), a word of warning is necessary. This House is a fantastic production, but one that does benefit from at least a base understanding of British politics and a little political history. It would be easy to enjoy the engaging dialogue and at times very comic situations on the stage without this knowledge, but to truly appreciate the play I do feel that it is something of a necessity. Saying that, complex concepts and archaic traditions are well explained throughout the play in a manner that doesn’t feel either too heavy nor condescending – characters new to the Whips’ office are cleverly used for moments of exposition.
Structurally, This House is solid without trying to be too clever. Action stays fast and an impressive amount of variety is present throughout. On a minor note, it has to be said that the second act could perhaps do with losing five minutes, though the explosive and surprisingly emotional final minutes do conclude the play brilliantly. Character arcs are nicely sewn up without a big moment of judgement, though, as is the nature of Westminster politics, some characters do leave scenes rather rapidly to never be seen again.
Overall, this touring production of This House is something rather special. It is at times a little peculiar, and certainly a little niche, but these facets become the play’s strength – This House is truly unique, as is the situation and political tradition it portrays and lovingly pokes fun at. Engrossing drama, genuine satire and moments of surprising emotional depth make This House an incredibly rounded production that truly rewards engaged viewers. Trust me when I say that if I could put three lines under this review I would – save broken legs or a house fire, your attendance is mandatory.
This House runs at the REP until Saturday 21st of April. More info can be found here.