Moving, funny (hilarious in places) and superbly presented, This House deserves its reputation as the best pieces of political theatre in the country.
From the opening scene, in which the cast strode through the aisles on to the stage to a background of discordant music, the play delivers a fast-paced, sometimes confusing, but always gripping look at the events of the years between 1974 and 1979.
James Graham, the author of this play wasn’t actually born until 1982, eight years after the events around which it is based actually started; so all credit to this young man for presenting us with a tumultuous fascinating whirlwind through possibly one of the most divisive and confusing times in living parliamentary memory.
This House, a National Theatre and Chichester Festival Theatre production, is at the Cambridge Arts Theatre this week – and well worth seeing.
1974 was a significant year in politics – with a hung parliament and a tiny Labour majority which meant that the ‘odds and sods’ – the other parties --were needed desperately to make their allegiances known. The play is centred on the whips from both Conservative and Labour parties, showing them more and more desperate to keep their parties ahead of the game.
With hints -- and less subtle moments -- depicting the main political scandals of these years, this was not at all what I expected when I settled down for the evening.
The set consisted of a highly impressive wood panelled set which turned in an instant from the engine rooms of Government to a bar, a portal to Heaven (or hell!) or Westminster Hall and various other parts of the house.
Deliberately emphasising the working class origins of Labour and those rather more refined vices of the Conservatives, the play began with the minority victory in February 1974 of Wilson's Labour Government and spun us through the next five years, as scandal hit (the depiction of John Stonehouse’s fake disappearance, brilliantly portrayed in a kind of performance art scene); The Jeremy Thorpe Murder outrage, the pure desperation of getting sick, dying, breastfeeding members in to cast those all-important votes, and the final triumphant voice over of the ‘Member from Finchley’ as she finally reached the highest office in the land, defeating the broken and exhausted Labour party.
Its hard to pick out the most memorable moments of this piece of theatre – the band on the balcony breaking into David Bowie’s ‘Rock and Roll Suicide’ for Stonehouse’s fake death scene, and ‘Five Years’ in the second act as the members careered crazily across the stage; the fights, the tragedy as Lord Batley, just too sick to make up the final ‘no confidence’ vote which would have saved the Labour Party; the amazingly hilarious member for Coventry South West whose firm working class stance unwittingly aided the downfall of the party -- it was all completely gripping.
The ensemble, made up of a hugely energetic group of actors (Labour posse: Chief Whip Bob Mellish (Martin Marquez); deputy Walter Harrison (James Gaddas), Michael Cocks (Tony Turner) and Ann Taylor (Natalie Grady); and to the right the Tories: Humphrey Atkins (William Chubb); Jack Wetherall (Matthew Pidgeon) and youngster Fred Silvester (Giles Cooper), flitted seamlessly from part to part making it feel as though we were watching many more characters than we were -- all superbly done. The speaker, played in act one by Miles Richardson and act two by Orlando Wells, introduced each character by their seat, which could have been, but actually wasn't, in the end, too confusing!
Parallels have been made to the parlous state of current political climate – and the subplot of Big Ben failing – a building, not just a country in decay – was excellent.
By the end of this marathon 2-and-a-half-hour piece, the actors looked completely exhausted – as were we.