If you’re one of those types who claims to find British politics boring, This House might be the show that compels you to cross the floor. In James Graham’s new play at the National Theatre, the tumultuous parliament of the 1970s is perfectly theatrically crystallised, and it’s more tense, exciting and complex a game than any Olympic sporting event.
If you are indeed one of those people you may have stopped reading by now, but fear not. Prior knowledge of the ins and outs of politics is not essential, with each ridiculous parliamentary convention and every pedantic rule of the political game artfully explained. There’s even a chalkboard on which you can follow the score, as Labour’s majorities in the house waver, die, limp on and scrape through.
The play’s focus in the Commons is the offices of the opposing whips. In the red corner we have Philip Glenister’s effortlessly charming, eminently likeable Walter Harrison, whose backroom dealings and frenetic brokering just about prop up the ailing Labour administration month by exhausting month. In the blue corner: the Tories, whose aim is to defeat the government on keynote legislation, call a vote of no confidence and force a snap election.
It’s basically a 1970s-flavoured The Thick Of It on Ice. Obscenities and wisecracks crackle and zing up and down the stage, which, along with the audience seating, is an impressive replica of the House of Commons with Big Ben looming large over proceedings. A glam rock band, later a punk band, set their guitars howling through scene changes and splendid choreographed set pieces. To aid clarity and keep things moving, we have the Speaker of the House who formally announces the arrival of each minor character from the Speaker’s chair. The production is wildly and wickedly inventive, constantly playing with form in this way.
There is no partisan bias in the text – this is a balanced affair: a human story in which the idiosyncratic traits of all parties are equally and gleefully sent up. The Labour whips are struggling to get their guys to Westminster to vote through their bills because of endless heart attacks, while for Tory members the problem is grouse-shooting and horse-riding accidents. Playwright Graham mines every last Catch-22, every ancient parliamentary tradition and ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ for – often dark – comic gold.
After yet another bizarre twist in the saga of parliamentary rules, one whip is curious: “Has this happened before?” he asks. “It doesn’t matter,” replies another, “It’s happening now.” A viewing of This House will entertain, enlighten and equip you with the requisite knowledge to keep tabs on our present parliamentary instability. You’ll also snort wine out of your nose. It’s pretty funny.