One of my theatre highlights of 2012 was standing behind the back benchers in the House of Commons (well the National Theatre’s Cottesloe Theatre really) and watching James Graham’s superb new play This House; a play that made politics come to life and sparkled as the razor sharp dialogue pinged across the aisle of the House.
After the tumultuous political year we have seen in Britain, where unimaginable events have followed at each others’ heels as if episodes from a new television drama, there seems no better time for this brilliant production to return and this weekend saw me take a trip to Chichester to see This House once again, prior to its arrival at the Garrick Theatre in London next month.
The play begins in the Britain of 1974, after the February election resulted in a hung Parliament. Labour took power from the Conservatives as the biggest party, but without a majority. As Labour’s Chief Whip puts it – “we’ve got the bigger boat, but they’ve got more oars.” Over the course of the play, we watch as each side makes side deals and promises aplenty with the “odds and sods” MPs in order to try and topple the numbers in their favour and as the votes on each Bill before the House grow ever tighter and the gloves come off, it is the job of the whips to do everything in their power to see that their side is the winner.
It’s a testament to the writing that this play seems as pertinent today as it did the first time around and in some instances even more so; the discussion as to whether to go for an EU referendum vote or not being particularly ironic in our Brexit world (I must check if Mr Graham has rewritten any of the dialogue in light of June’s events). It’s also Graham’s ability to write so brilliantly, the many characters of differing backgrounds, ideals and personalities across the aisle that results in so many ridiculous arguments, all of which are a joy to watch. The desperate lengths the whips go to, to ensure every MP is present for crucial votes as Labour cling to power, seem a work of fiction, except you can’t help but imagine that similar events probably did happen!
Some of the original cast have returned to the play including Phil Daniels as Labour’s Chief Whip Bob Mellish and Lauren O’Neil as Ann Taylor, the woman determined to fit in to the boys’ club. However, what’s wonderful here is how the new additions to the cast have blended in seamlessly. I did love Philip Glenister originally, but Steffan Rhodri is excellent in the role of Walter Harrison, the best deputy whip the House has ever seen. He also has a fantastic chemistry with his opposite Tory number Nathaniel Parker as Jack Weatherill. Parker is a fine stage actor and a worthy successor to Charles Edwards. He brings a great deal to his role and despite their differences, the mutual respect these two men have for each other is clear.
Malcolm Sinclair is superb as the upper-class Tory Chief Whip Humphrey Atkins and he adds an extra layer of dry-humoured, elitism to the character, which made me laugh on many occasions – his utter horror at the thought of watching Coronation Street just one example of his ability to bring humour through Atkins’s disdain!
As well as a strong cast and a tautly written script, the other star of This House is Rae Smith’s set, which adds a further dimension with the inclusion of its Commons audience seating. It remains an excellent way of not only replicating the image of the Commons and its packed benches, but also drawing the audience further in. You are literally part of the furniture, watching the back room deals up close!
Whether or not you think politics matters to you, it undeniably affects us all and this play shines a light on a particularly interesting period of political history in an incredibly entertaining way. With such a talent for making politics fresh and engrossing (since This House premiered, Graham has brought us the wonderful The Vote on stage as well as Coalition on television), I can only imagine what James Graham could create if he ever writes about the politics of 2016!
No matter your political leaning, you’re sure to enjoy This House. It is witty, engaging and rather touching in places and with such a strong ensemble, it is yet again guaranteed to take London by storm. Buy your tickets while you can (and if possible make it a Commons seat too)!
This House continues at the Festival Theatre, Chichester until 29th October. It then transfers to the Garrick Theatre in London from 18th November – 25th February 2017. For more information visit the theatre websites: