James Graham’s semi-nostalgic dramatisation of an already dramatic era in British political history makes its West End debut, whipping up a plot bursting with swift and hearty cynicism that cuts incisively into our political system without tearing it to shreds.
In depicting the 1970s it is no doubt hard to avoid the prominence of dodgy fashion, haircuts, and cigarette smoke; in this sense, This House is unashamedly retro, replete with flares, sideburns and a sorely missed David Bowie. The dazzling use of the apocalyptic ‘Five Years’ (delivered in full cockney by Phil Daniels) halfway through the show cements This House as a breathtakingly bizarre, quick-witted yet altogether humane glance at the ticking time-bomb that was the Wilson/Callaghan government.
Set in the smoky backrooms of the House of Commons during Labour͛s wafer-thin majority government, with each side of the stage allotted to the Labour and Tory offices, James Graham’s play serves up a fierce, blackly comic vision of an often cartoonish political system little different to the one we see today; what it ultimately honours is the grit and integrity of MPs across the house, which is considerably daring and all the more relevant in a year marked by contempt and suspicion of the elites.
Though the play is peppered with the occasional cameo and namedropping of now heavyweight politicians (i.e. a foppish, lisping Michael Heseltine), it is a credit to the solid ensemble performances that they inject the distant past with an earthy gravitas. The play͛s relentless pace, storming through at least 3 years of the Wilson administration even before the interval similarly lets the story transcend its historical backdrop, giving us a high-octane image of an otherwise dated political past. Graham is careful in letting his allegiances fall too near either political wing, and although the play indulges in the broad caricatures of the crude working-class Labour wit and the slick superiority of the Conservatives, it is measured enough to let its characters wriggle out of the stereotype when necessary, giving us figures that are perhaps too human for the airbrushed plastic politician we are used to.
The characters, though naturally distant from the smooth talking, Question Time MP, are confronted by the all-too-relevant dilemmas of pragmatism vs. ideology, Party vs. membership. In this respect, This House gives equal dues to both sides of its benches: when it throws off the cartoonish, dizzying action and allows its exhausted MPs room to breathe, their authenticity and cosy charm serve to romanticise what may currently seem like the most unromantic and suspect subject matters.
After all, the play narrates what would be the most ideologically compromised political era for a generation. Though the plot is, by nature of the choice of Government and period, allied to the struggle of Labour to get their precarious legislation through the Commons, there is very little discussion about what͛s at stake beyond the tribal allegiances of each party. The focal point of action, though based around propping up a precarious minority government, centres on the art and act of getting things done while aged MPs are dropping like flies and eating away at a precarious minority government; the goal seems little more than keeping “them” (the other side) out. The final chime of Big Ben at the play’s conclusion, marking Thatcher’s glide into into Number 10, is what wil resonate the longest.
Though originally staged in 2012 against the backdrop of the Coalition that infamously needed to avoid this kind of hung parliament, This House carries far more prescience now as we enter an age of fundamental political uncertainty, seeing far more familiar themes that chime with the current state of political disunity in 2016. This ultimately rose-tinted portrait of British politics rarely veers beyond the fierce clamour of Parliament, with the frantic pantomime of the Commons Chamber distracts a little too much from the historical significance of the narrative. Though we are doubtlessly due for chaos and overwrought political drama in the year ahead of us, Brexit: The Musical is probably a long way off still.
Yet with a cluster of striking lead performances injected with vivid, high-octane energy from director Jeremy Herrin, although This House stops short at glamourising politics, it nonetheless wants to make it seem familiar and accessible. Though it thrives on an often-cartoonish depiction of parliamentary democracy, the play͛’s big (if not severely bruised) heart pumps a defiant amount of wit and pathos into politics in an era deeply disenchanted with it.
This House is playing at the Garrick Theatre until 25th February.