This House – Review – West Yorkshire Playhouse
By Eve Luddington, March 2018
West Yorkshire Playhouse is the first venue for the national tour of This House, which began life at the National Theatre before running at the Chichester Festival Theatre and in the West End. Written in 2012 as James Graham’s response to the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition formed in 2010, the play traces the adversarial politics of Westminster between 1974 and 1979 when Labour ran a government dependent on the support of minority parties – extremely timely now, with a minority Tory government supported by the Northern Irish DUP.
The play is extensively researched and although a fictional account, remains true to the events that formed the political roller-coaster of those years. Nick Clegg (former Liberal Democrat leader) writes in the programme: ‘James Graham succeeds in casting a more penetrating light on how politics actually feels at Westminster than the daily deluge of political commentary in the press.’
Most of the action is located in the parliamentary Whips’ offices and focuses not on policies but on the games played in the pursuit of power. It’s impossible to watch this history unfurl on stage without thinking about contemporary politics, especially as the set depicts a Palace of Westminster unchanged since the 70s, set off by Big Ben’s clock face (which runs backwards in this production). Several audience members are seated on the Government and Opposition benches and they blend in more and more with the setting as the play progresses. Westminster sucks in those who inhabit its rooms.
But initially, I was struck by the differences between today and the 1970s. In an ensemble cast of 19 only 3 are women. Graham depicts the Tory MPs as privileged elitists while Labour is represented by ‘the workers’, blunt speakers who curse in their regional accents, drink beer and congregate in smoke-filled rooms. I was almost surprised at the lack of ferrets! According to Graham, politics was class warfare in the 70s. Class seems a more blurred affair in Westminster today and the internal wrangling of parties more dominant.
But the generally adversarial nature of the system seems set in the stone of Westminster’s buildings. The party in government has much more power than the opposition – so in the 1970s Labour’s minority government was desperate to cling on while the Tories believed they could bring them down at any time. The way that savage political games were played in 1970s turbulent times is strongly resonant today.
In the Whips’ offices the crucial aim of each party is to gain a majority every time there’s a vote. It’s incongruous that their fight, then and now, adheres to archaic parliamentary rules and quaint customs – and fitting that it takes place in the faded grandeur of a decaying parliament building.
The play is somewhat repetitive, switching between the two Whips’ offices and the parliamentary divisions, with occasional conversations in corridors. Each Member is introduced by the Speaker, Westminster’s Master of Ceremonies, in a bow to parliamentary convention. Inevitably, it’s very wordy and most of the first half, though engaging, seemed long when I saw it. I was grateful for the relief of live band numbers to which Members dance and occasionally sing. One, John Stonehouse, fakes his own drowning in the only overtly theatrical scene of the play.
But the pressure and pace of This House ratchets up when Labour Whips begin so seriously to fear defeat that they break the age-old ‘gentleman’s agreement’ of ‘pairing’ – whereby an MP from one side relinquishes their vote if another from the opposing side cannot physically do so, usually for reasons of illness.
Now, the ‘fun’ of the play begins. To maximise their votes, Labour bring in sick and dying MPs; fix traffic lights to green; fly one member in by helicopter and, horror of horrors, allow another to breastfeed her baby in the Whips’ office (one of several female ‘firsts’ depicted).
They promise favours to opposition parties and then form the Lib-Lab pact which inevitably involves compromise. The Tories’ wheeler-dealing is more eloquent but no more decent and, when Thatcher is elected leader of their party, she pushes the aggression, believing consensus politics gets nowhere. As Tory Whip, Humphrey Atkins, says of adversarial politics: ‘That’s our system. That’s this building. Two sides of the house, two sides of the argument, facing off against each other… We are not built for co-operation.’
Written and played with humour, peppered with epigrams, This House lampoons Westminster politics. One character, a Liberal, remarks, tellingly: ‘Conservative governments fall eventually because they believe they’re entitled to govern. Labour governments fall eventually because they don’t.’
I didn’t laugh. In fact I was shocked and somehow repulsed by the political shenanigans the play exposes. I was left with the impression that Westminster contains an introspective world which, to MPs, is of paramount importance and that general codes of humanity fly out of the windows when the going gets tough and the government justifies any means to their end of keeping the opposition out of power.
A revealing scene for me is a band number about flying, played as MPs wander around exhausted, sometimes drunk. Some collapse, some die. Significant too, the scene where all the politicians sing, with what I regarded as supreme hypocrisy: ‘I vow to thee my country.’ Politics revealed in this light are brutal.
A pivotal moment highlights the prevailing loss of ideological belief when one Labour member, Audrey Wise, refuses to support Labour’s financial cutbacks and is arrested on a picket line, thus retaining her integrity but severely marking her card.
Conversely, one of the main characters is the MP for Batley and Morley, Alfred Broughton dying of emphysema but doing his damnedest to attend in order to vote for his party. In a rare showing of compassion, the Tory Whip, Jack Weatherill agrees with Walter Harrison, Labour Whip, to ‘pair’ in order to save Broughton the journey. Labour loses the vote by one and the MP dies of a heart attack. This is the Tories’ opportunity to win a vote of ‘no confidence’ and an election is called.
So, it seems, political fortunes can fall not on the failure of policies but on personal tragedy. The final words of the play, chilling for me, are Thatcher’s, spoken as she stood outside 10 Downing Street on 4 May 1979: ‘Where there is discord, may we bring harmony…’
In a strong cast, James Gaddas’ Walter Harrison stands out. He lives in the character of a man whose raison d’être is politics, whose job is to help run the Party machine but who is still a human being. Natalie Grady, as the pioneering Labour MP, Ann Taylor, portrayed persuasively a woman who has to come to terms with the macho world of Westminster and learns to speak her mind and heart.
Some of the Tory characters, and several of the cameo roles were caricatures with faintly comic wigs: perhaps the director’s intention was to get laughs but these portrayals jarred with me. Overall, however, the directing by Jeremy Herrin and Jonathan O’Boyle was subtle and without gimmicks: it told the story effectively and with pace.
I left West Yorkshire Playhouse entertained and challenged. Throughout the night, I kept waking, haunted by a statement by Churchill: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
images: Johan Persson