This House review: The hit coalition fable triumphs in its West End debut

Thanks to James Graham's brilliant script, what could be a dry series of head counts is transformed into a thrilling evening of intrigue and laughter

Joe Vesey-Byrne
Thursday 01 December 2016 12:06

Soaring up from the depths of its setting in the engine room of parliament, James Graham’s This House continues to fly high as a crowd pleaser and modern political fable. Set where the dirty deals are done, This House is an ode to the unsung saviours of 1970s democracy: the parliamentary Whips.

Thanks to a brilliant script, the innards of the House of Commons during Labour’s 1974-79 struggle with an anaemic parliamentary majority, are transformed from a dry sequence of head counts into a thrilling tale of intrigue and laughter.

Director Jeremy Herrin’s staging makes good use of a basic set, consisting of four desks, Speaker’s throne, an ever important members’ bar, and a stair case leading to the omnipresent face of Big Ben. The static shabbiness of This House’s set is well suited to the unfolding drama about stagnation.

The production has retained many of the excellent supporting players from earlier runs, but the new cast were by no means out of place.

Protagonists Nathaniel Parker and Steffan Rhodri give solid performances as the play’s honourable sportsmen, determined to hold onto gentlemen’s agreements in an increasingly adversarial politics. Kevin Doyle also gives a warm, melancholic and sympathetic performance as put upon Michael Cocks.

Steffan Rhodri and Nathaniel Parker work across the aisle as opposing Party Whips.

Unlike other historical dramas the characters are by their position as Whips virtually anonymous, making them and the drama much more accessible than might have been if the story was told through clunky impersonations.

The humour and the accents are broad, but this suits the period. One instance when the deal with the unanticipated dilemma of an MP breast feeding in the chamber is a good mix of Carry On and a point about a parliament in which women remain underrepresented today.

Phil Daniels as Labour’s chief Bob Mellish is the life of the first act, and his later absence marks out something of loss for the play. The action is more believable when the government of the realm is played out as farce, than as melodrama.

The tonal shifts can be confusing. One set of deceased MPs walk off stage into a Hollywood-style tunnel of light, while other on stage deaths are played with harsh realism. The number of fatalities for a story set in the House of Commons is shocking (and technically impossible) but the quantity softens the emotional effect of the deaths we’re supposed to care about. Admittedly the incidents are based in reality. A shocking 17 Labour MPs died during the Wilson-Callaghan period.

Labour are the (sort of) protagonists, but only because they’re the ones defending a razor wire majority (at times as low as one, at others in the relative soaring heights of 18, the sort of breathing space Theresa May would likely welcome). More significantly, Labour’s enemies do not lie across the chamber, but in their own militant ranks, as factionalism destroys the party.

First performed during the years of the Coalition government, some of the play’s discussions about cooperation feel less salient, yet existing jokes about European referendums and devolution are cashed in for a 2016 crowd.

This House is a pleasure to consume, and is full of substantive performances. Broad brush strokes tell a story filled with minutiae. The trivia is worth the price of admission alone.

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