In 2016, politics on both the national and global stage descended into farce, although not always the funny kind. So thank goodness James Graham’s brilliant play has finally arrived in the West End to remind us that it was ever thus.
First performed at the National Theatre in 2012 to great acclaim, This House is set in the “engine room” of the House of Commons: the Government and Opposition Whips’ offices. Graham takes us back to the turbulent politics of the 1970s when Labour found itself ruling during Britain’s first “hung parliament”.
The opening scene is pure, delicious caricature: the Tories are pompous and posh; the Labour Whips have regional accents, foul mouths and a penchant for saveloy and chips. Both offices are hard-drinking old boys’ clubs –when a young Ann Taylor turns up for duty, her Labour colleagues assume she’s a secretary.
Lauren O’Neil as Labour Whip Ann Taylor. Above: Steffan Rhodri as Labour Whip Walter Harrison and Nathaniel Parker as Tory Whip Jack Weatherill (photos by Johan Persson)
Graham’s script is peppered with wry allusions to the key players in 1970s British politics and has fun with the archaic, often ludicrous conventions and confusing terms. (There’s a helpful glossary in the programme if you’re baffled by the Westminster terminology as I was.)
It’s also surprisingly thrilling. As Labour’s grasp on power weakens, the action and energy ramp up as the Whips resort to increasingly desperate measures to get votes. There are even a few musical numbers played by a shape-shifting band who are a reminder of the rapidly changing society outside of this claustrophobic universe.
Fittingly, This House wouldn’t work without impeccable choreography, slick pacing and a superb ensemble cast who slip in and out of bell-bottoms and lampshade hairdos as they play the MPs who are cajoled, bribed and bullied into the voting lobby.
Those looking for parallels with the events of the last year will find plenty to snort over. Depressingly, This House reveals how little has changed during the last 40 years and how our adversarial system still favours a political tug-of-war over cross-party compromise. As the Chief Tory Whip, Humphrey Atkins, puts it: “That’s our system. That’s this building. Two sides of the house, two sides of the argument facing off against each other… We are not built for cooperation.”
But the real triumph of This House isn’t that it lifts the lid on those shadowy figures and how they keep an outdated political system creaking along. It’s that we feel for them, if perhaps more so for the Labour Whips (I suspect I can guess on which side Graham’s political allegiances lie).
Graham reminds us that MPs are humans too, with health problems and complicated personal lives. They’re imperfect beings trapped in an imperfect system – and that is the tragedy at the heart of this superb comedy.
This House is at the Garrick Theatre until 25 February
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