This House - 30 November 2016 Review

a rollicking, riotous and deeply symbolic story

It seems impossible for a play that first premiered 2012 to be labelled as dated, but British politics has shifted so radically since then that This House - James Graham's stylish exhumation of the turbulent parliament of the late seventies - has already lost some of its bite. But what it lacks in immediate topicality, it makes up for in depth. For this is a play that pierces the paradoxical heart of Westminster, articulately examining transcendent, age-old truths as it does so. It's long overdue West End transfer is very welcome indeed.

Graham lifts the lid on the engine rooms of Parliament, documenting the trials and tribulations of the party whips during Harold Wilson's - later James Callaghan's - precarious Labour governments between 1974 and 1979. In the red corner, Bob Mellish (Phil Daniels), Walter Harrison (Steffan Rhodri) and Michael Cocks (Kevin Doyle) desperately try to survive on wafer thin majorities. In the blue corner, Humphrey Atkins (Malcolm Sinclair) and Jack Weatherill (Nathaniel Parker) plot feverishly to oust them. It's a rollicking, riotous and deeply symbolic story of skin-of-the-teeth votes in the Commons, unlikely friendships across the aisle, and endless wheeling and dealing.

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The original airing of Jeremy Herrin's production at the National four years ago took place during the heady days of the Coalition, not half a mile from where Cameron and Clegg comfortably spooned in Downing St. It's story, in which other parties' MPs - the 'odds and sods' - are flirtatiously seduced by both sets of whips, and in which principles and practicalities regularly clash, was stirringly pertinent back then. Things are different now, post-Cameron, post-Brexit and post-Trump, but where Graham aims at more fundamental issues surrounding British parliamentary democracy, he still hits home heavily, not least in his celebration of the quirky traditions and gentlemen's handshakes that once greased the wheels of government.

On Rae Smith's superb set - an opulent cocktail of rich wood and green leather that shifts smoothly between the House of Commons, the Whips' offices, and the Stranger's Bar - the entire cast excel. The respectful, joshing amity of Harrison and Weatherill is the play's central relationship, and both Rhodri and Parker are perfect. The former is a 'stubborn, Northern bastard' from his braying laugh to his gravelly accent, the latter a study in oily, aristocratic suaveness. They are supported well by Daniels, Doyle and Sinclair, and by a host of multi-rolling others, who swap characters chameleon-like to populate the Westminster Village.

Herrin's kaleidoscopic direction drives the action relentlessly on, evoking the hurly-burly and the nail-biting exhilaration of parliamentary life extraordinarily well. A lively band provide accompaniment to the frequent moments of exquisite political drama. But the real star here is Graham, who has crafted a play that manages to be a raucous comedy (The Thick Of It written by Nöel Coward), a moving period drama, and an eye-opening dissection of British political life, all at once. Hell, I'd vote for him.

star-rating-4.0

Reviewed by Fergus Morgan.
30 November 2016, Garrick Theatre