Thursday, 19 January 2017

Theatre Review: This House

If there were some kind of master list of things I love in this world, theatre and slightly obscure political geekery would definitely both be on it.

It may not surprise you to learn, then, that a play that tells the story of the internal machinations of the Labour and Conservative whips offices in the 1970s is 100% up my street. At least 100%. More if that were mathematically possible.

Of course the play in question is This House, because even if you’ve somehow stumbled this far without reading the title of the post what other play could that last paragraph possibly be describing? A speedy, but timely, revival of James Graham's 2012 National Theatre production, involving many of the original creative team, This House tells the story of the hot mess that was British politics in the mid to late 70s through the eyes of the men and woman (not a typo) whose job it was to try and keep their respective parties' shows on the road.

For a political saddo like me, there was no way I wasn't going to find this play fascinating. And I did, but I also absolutely loved it which I don't think was as guaranteed (though admittedly fairly likely). What's arguably more interesting is why I loved it: yes the political stuff is super interesting and done really well, but more than that this play is so innovative, so funny and - most surprisingly - so humane that I fell for it utterly.

Let's deal with the political stuff first because, at least from the experience of the non-political friend I went with, this seems to be the thing that's making some people nervous about seeing this play. Based on my highly scientific survey of one person, there seems to be a fear that if you don't understand the ins and outs of Parliamentary procedure - who the fuck does? - or the key political events of the 1970s (and let's be honest there are a lot of those) you won't understand or worse won't enjoy This House. That's not at all the case. The play explains the events you need to know about well. It works subtle explanations of the key bits of Parliamentary ridiculousness into the dialogue. It almost never uses the names of any of the real politicians who feature, referring to them instead by their constituency thus making it much easier to keep track of who's doing what for non-geeks in the audience (whilst providing the geeks with a fun game of spot the MP). It makes a play about arguably one of the least accessible democratic institutions in the world into something completely accessible to anyone, and it does it so subtly. That in itself is worthy of love and praise.

It's more than that though, so much more. As interested as This House is in political history, it's also interested in ideas of identity, loyalty, honour, how far you should go to defend your deepest held beliefs and what happens when all of these things interact and conflict. James Graham's writing across all of these 'big ideas' and the political stuff is superb - funny, touching, straightforward and razor sharp. It connects with the audience in a genuinely exciting way that shows off live theatre at its very best; I lost count of the number of audible gasps from the audience I heard on the night I saw it. He is backed up by fantastic design that turns the stage into a miniature House of Commons, variously accommodating the two whips teams' offices and the House of Commons (and indeed real life auditorium) bar on the floor in the middle of the two sets of benches.

It also helps the play that Graham's lead characters, whilst based on real people, are not household names. He focuses his action particularly around the Labour and Tory Deputy Chief Whips, sensibly as they are the ones who are supposed to do the deals with other parties and with their own backbenchers. It's certainly not a hindrance to my love of This House that this production has the excellent Steffan Rhodri and Nathaniel Parker, two of my absolute faves, in these key roles. Rhodri in particular is excellent as Walter Harrison, the hard arse with a heart Labour Deputy whilst Parker is a perfectly patrician foil as Jack Weatherill, his Tory counterpart. The climactic scene where Jack offers to defy his own whip on a vote to bring down the Labour Government to cancel out the vote of a dying Labour MP who Walter is refusing to call down to London to vote for fear the effort would kill him, only for Walter to refuse the offer in the knowledge that Labour will lose the vote, is a beautifully understated study in notions of honour, friendship and humanity. It was the recipient of at least one hugely audible audience gasp, and rightly so. A hardworking ensemble cast plays all the rest of the many characters exceptionally well too. I am jealous of the guy who got to play Norman St John-Stevas, Ken Clarke and Michael Heseltine!

Honestly, I cannot recommend this production enough. Political or otherwise there's so much here to love. A genuine must see in a year when perhaps we all do need a lesson in how to laugh at politics again and a timely reminder that politicians are actually human beings (most of them).

This House plays at the Garrick Theatre until February 25th.

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