On YouTube until 4 June 2020
I’m not sure how I came to miss James Graham’s play This House when it was first produced. There were two National Theatre runs, a West End transfer and national tour and it was livestreamed to cinemas. Anyway, miss it I did, so I’m grateful for the current NT At Home streaming allowing me to put that right.
The house referred to in the title is Parliament and Graham’s bruising account of events in the early 1970s are bound to strike a well-timed chord in a week that has been almost totally dominated by political manoeuvrings in the corridors of power as Cummingsgate rumbles on.
Rather than political advisers, however, the play focuses on the work and behaviour of the Party Whips, both governmental and oppositional, the political demigods who are described on Parliament’s website, rather coyly one feels, as those who “ help organise their party’s contribution to parliamentary business”. As Graham’s play makes clear, this is putting it mildly.
The plotline covers several years during a period when majorities were slim and politics was a brutal business. The job of the Whips is to keep the members of the party online and onside and the play demonstrates the tactics and tricks used to do so. When a particular gentleman’s agreement about voting known as “pairing” breaks down the gloves truly come off.
Regardless of their whereabouts or state of health, the Whips drive the MPs through the voting chambers to a point which becomes farcical; even death does not halt the madness. Although I laughed heartily, it was a disturbing condemnation of the lengths to which politicians will go to in order to gain and retain power.
The play is brilliantly staged and fast-moving with many short scenes that swiftly move the action on. Director Jeremy Herrin does a superb job of switching between intimate backstage chicanery to full-scale parliamentary proceedings. There is even a very clever sequence set in the sea off Miami as rogue politician John Stonehouse fakes his own death. The main setting, however, is the Labour and Conservative Whips’ offices which are shown to be hotbeds of intrigue and scheming and where even the style of chairs is shown to be of huge significance. The Labour Office is initially dominated by Chief Whip Bob Mellish, a no-nonsense Cockney bruiser who makes an error of judgement in backing the wrong horse and has to go. This is a pity as Phil Daniels is undoubtedly one of the delights of the production. Mellish is succeeded by Michael Cocks, in Vincent Franklin’s fine performance a man who always seems to be somewhat out of his depth and who takes solace in the inner workings of Big Ben which, significantly, grinds to a halt. In the Conservative Office the conniving and disdainful Humphrey Atkins (Julian Wadham) amply demonstrates why British politics hinges on a question of class. The drama’s two main characters, however, are the deputies – Jack Weatherill for the Tories and Walter Harrison for Labour. They are played respectively by Charles Edwards and Reece Dinsdale, the former as an ice cool charmer in a Saville Row suit and the latter as a bluff gruff Yorkshireman in M & S polyester. Both actors give fine performances and suggest that were their characters not divided by politics they would actually be good friends – one even makes a highly selfless gesture towards the other which goes some way to allaying fears that politics is completely without honour.