Olivier Theatre at the National Theatre, Southbank
Playwright: James Graham
Director: Jeremy Herrin
Designer: Rae Smith
Lighting Design: Paul Anderson
Music: Stephen Warbeck
Anybody unfamiliar with political theatre may be a little apprehensive when staring down the barrel of a play centred on the machinations of political insiders during the first coalition government in the 70’s. It’s perfectly understandable. But what the writer James Graham delivers in this near three hour (including interval) story is a nuanced and effective study of characters with the politics of the day standing in as an interesting backdrop to men and women with whip smart quips, sharp wits and, sometimes, thoroughly endearing frailties.
With the help of some intelligent set and lighting design the action takes place in the Westminster offices of the Whips for both the Labour party and the Tory party as well as in the halls, the clock tower, the crypts, the underground rifle range (yeah, they have one) a member’s bar, a closet and a few other places. We are getting a snapshot of how the Whips offices, the “engine rooms of parliament”, operated in the four and a half years of the Labour government with a minuscule majority from 1974 to 1979. Running frantically around the stage trying to marshal their MPs and the Independents into the lobby to vote on a bill, the Whips are the focus of this piece though the traditions and stories of Westminster Palace itself play a large part.
With only the barest mention of the politics and bills in question this political play is an odd one when considered in the larger canon. Politics is at its heart, but the play deals in characters and relationships. The antagonism and open warfare between the two sides of the house, along with a healthy amount of respect, is shown through the various whips with the Labour chief (an excellent Phil Daniels in the first, and former deputy Vincent Franklin in the second, half) and the Tory’s men (Julian Wadham and Charles Edwards shine) tearing lumps out of each other verbally with a great deal of charm. There are moments of real tenderness in the story as well as the political gazumping and chicanery, with the deaths of the various MPs during the time covered by the play handled excellently.
Graham is quite clearly highly skilled at sharp dialogue and the research he completed into the politics at the time, as well as the English political system in general, shows through in a very entertaining way. Although because the characters are based on real people, it is hard to tell if the way they come across as caricatures of Labour and Tory politicians is his doing or if they were actually like that.
The music is well performed by Acoustic Jim and The Wires, though at times feels a little incongruous and unexpected, and there may be a little too much talk and too many characters to keep track of for some members of the audience. Overall, however, this is a superb play with many different levels and facets, each of which have been fine tuned and presented with polish.
There may have been some questions over how This House would transfer from the intimate Cottesloe to the 1200 seater Olivier for this production, but this cast and crew answer with enjoyable aplomb.
This House runs from now until the 15th of May.
(Image from the National Theatre showing Vincent Franklin, Philip Glenister and Lauren O’Neil. Click the link for dates and availability. )