With increased public scrutiny we’ve a fair idea of what goes on in the seat of government but there are shadowy corners that defy close examination. At its beating heart is an engine with more power than MPs, Prime Ministers and party leaders.
James Graham settled on the Chief Whip’s office for the setting of his explosive political stage drama, This House, which won public and critical acclaim when it first aired at London’s National Theatre four years ago.
It proved so popular on the intimate Cottesloe stage that it was revived at the venue a year later, moving into the much bigger Olivier auditorium.
Now it’s back thanks to a coalition between Headlong, the NT and Chichester Festival Theatre, for a run in Chichester’s Minerva Theatre before transferring to the West End.
I’m not sure this really is a West End type of drama. It caters for quite a niche market and it helps if audience members are up to speed on their 1970’s politics before taking their places on the front benches.
No less than 57 MPs and two Commons speakers are mentioned during the 160-minute production although almost none are referred to by their full name, rather the Speaker announces them by the constituencies they represent.
There are one of two characters who stand out due to their eccentricity, renown or infamy. Being quite a political animal I spotted them right away – the likes of Michael Heseltine and Norman St John Stevas (brilliantly caricaturised by Matthew Pidgeon), Airey Neave, Heath, Wilson, Callaghan and Maggie, an outrageous Alan Clark from Orlando Wells, and John Stonehouse.
But would the public know who was the standing MPs for Birmingham Stechford or Bristol South East in 1974 ? The answer was Roy Jenkins and Tony Benn.
Graham makes it clear that This House is a work of fiction that is “inspired by” real events but it’s hard to draw a distinction between the facts and the fantasy.
This House concentrates on one of the most volatile eras in modern British politics. Between 1974 and 1979 the country was governed almost exclusively by a hung parliament with neither Labour, led by Harold Wilson, or the Tories, fronted by Edward Heath, having an overall majority.
It meant both sides buttering up – no, bribing – the “odds and sods,” the minority members, into backing their plans in an effort to make government in any way workable.
It opens with the Tories being ousted by the smallest of majorities and the Whips, on both sides, changing offices.
Into the Tory office, with its plush executive chairs, comes Labour Chief Whip Bob Mellish, (Phil Daniels reprising the role) an East End docker’s son with a spider plant, a cheap suit, a degree in swearing and lots of attitude.
His deputy is Steffan Rhodri’s Walter Harrison, a man not averse to mixing with ministers’ drivers in the pub on Sundays to glean the latest gossip.
Downton Abbey’s Kevin Doyle plays whip and moderate, Michael Cocks, and, completing the team, is David Hounslow as the excitable Joe Harper and new ambitious MP Ann Taylor (Lauren O’ Neill).
Not one to break with stereotypes Graham’s Conservatives are public school toffs, arrogant, upper class, pompous and condescending – particularly Opposition Chief Whip Humphrey Atkins (Malcolm Sinclair positively oozing disdain).
His number two, tailor’s son and Savile Row-suited Jack Weatherill (Nathaniel Parker who spends most of his time stalking the corridors of power clutching an outsized diary) is more conciliatory and prepared to work with Labour – providing they play the game.
And, shockingly, that’s what it seems to be. Trade-offs, gentlemen’s agreements, childish taunts, the dying and infirmed wheeled in to manipulate Parliamentary procedure, and, on one momentous occasion, fisticuffs in the house.
The parties and their whips clash, plot, connive in a bid to oust the opposition and, bubbling in the background we hear the rise to power of Britain’s first woman PM, the MP for Finchley, Margaret Thatcher.
A top class ensemble (on both sides of the House) make Jeremy Herrin’s pacy direction look effortless. Most of the cast play multiple roles and, in one instance Daniels is elected to the part of lead singer in a punk band which provides music for the production.
Rae Smith’s wooden set design must have kept a team of carpenters busy for days. The small Minerva has been transformed into the House of Commons Chamber with parliamentary front benches, a replica of the Speaker’s Chair and a mezzanine level which allows Cocks to escape the hubbub and find solitude with Big Ben. There are even gargoyles peering down on the audience.
But the play is overlong and there are times when the performance space struggles to contain a cast of 16 and the clutter of tables and chairs. They all come on – in a beautifully choreographed manoeuvre – at the opening and it very authentically replicates, accidentally or otherwise, the chaos that occurs when the House is in session.
The playwright can’t avoid nailing his political affiliations to the ballot box. His Labour characters are all human, altruistic, hard-working and compassionate while the Tories are depicted as insensitive, uncaring and imperious.
Phil Daniels succeeds in making Bob Mellish a very sympathetic and compelling character, a Jack Russell who spent much of his career snapping at the heels of others yet was ultimately floored by his own unexpected ambition.
And Kevin Doyle subtly underplays Cocks, giving the man a selfless, quiet dignity. Meanwhile it’s impossible to like the haughty and pompous Atkins or the others in his office.
The cut and thrust of politics has never been so well portrayed on stage. It will be interesting to see what the West End’s audiences, typically filled with foreign tourists, will make of it.
This House runs at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester until October 29 before transferring to the Garrick Theatre from November 19.
This coalition revival of James Graham’s This House is still riveting – providing you have a working knowledge of 1970’s politics.