Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford – until 26th May
Reviewed by Heather Chalkley
A fast past tale of political shenanigans in the hallowed realms of the houses of parliament. Although staying true to the events of the government of 1974 – 79, a lot of artistic licence has been thrown in to provide humour and show human vulnerabilities. The author, James Graham, researched at length the hung parliament of that time, capturing 5 years of unique political history in little more than 2.5 hours! Wow!
Having grown up through the 70’s it was like stepping back in time, particularly the attitude towards women. The necessary strength of character of the women MPs shone through, with Labour whip Ann Taylor (Natalie Grady) and the Coventry South West MP Audrey Wise (Louise Ludgate). Male counterparts tripped over themselves to behave in their presence, whilst the women ‘found their balls’ and were more than equally matched. One of my favourite scenes is of MP Audrey Wise travelling to Westminster, to supposedly sign an apology for not towing the party line and instead slowly and steadily layed out the £20 fine, coin by coin!
The play gives you a fantastic insight into the workings of the whips office and how it makes or breaks a government. Labour Chief Whip Bob Mellish (Martin Marquez) spelled out to the newby Ann Taylor that yes she is the token female, however they all have a role within a role, whether its himself as the token cockney or Deputy Chief Whip Walter Harrison (James Gaddas) as the token northerner. They were trying to be representative! James Gaddas as the Deputy Chief Whip gave an exemplary performance, showing northern grit and a very human commitment to tradition and the party.
The hung parliament was so close that every single Labour vote for each bill counted and all the ‘others’ had to be courted and bribed into siding with them. The portrayal of Irish, Scottish and Welsh MP’s was hilarious, with all Whips on both sides running themselves ragged to solicit their votes. Labour as the working class brassy pint drinkers and Conservatives as cool as cucumber public school boys. In the darkest days, historical traditions such as ‘Pairing’ and ‘The Usual Channels’ were closed down by the Tory whips, so aged and near death Labour members had to be shipped in from all compass points in order to get the slimmest of wins. Hilarious and macabre scenes of heart attacks and suicide attempts delivered the intense pressure of the time.
The use of music to illustrate each decade was inspired and funny, especially the punk rocker V signs thrown out by the players! They were housed in the balcony of the Commons. The whole set was an impressive depiction of the House of Commons, including seats on either side for a few audience members to sit. The massive Speakers chair slide elegantly in and out of the back, making way for the two whips offices. The creative team have to be commended. The use of movement and music throughout gave the piece pace and intensity. The Ensemble were fluid and expert in their delivery. Added to this was the Speaker of the House (Miles Richardson/Orlando Wells) announcing with gravitas each MP as they entered the stage, forever present in the background.
The reflections of what we are experiencing in present day politics cannot be denied and adds a different dimension for the viewer. However, regardless of whether politics is your thing, I would thoroughly recommend This House: it has enough drama, humour and pace to entertain any audience.