This House is the new play from James Graham. Set between 1974 and 1979, the play covers the fractious political climate of the Harold Wilson and James Callaghan governments from the perspective of the government and opposition whips – those MPs charged with getting every other MP to vote the right way on legislation.
Starting out with a minority government in 1974, and increasing this to the slimmest of majorities in the second election of that year, the Labour Party whips had to fight for every single vote to pass legislation and win over as many of the ‘odds and sods’ – those MPs from minority parties – as possible. Eventually, every MP is required to be present in Parliament for every division to avoid losing a vote of No Confidence.
James Graham has already made a name for himself as a writer of political drama, most prominent in Tory Boyz from 2008 in which he deals with the homosexuality in the Conservative Party and based on the rumours that Edward Heath (Prime Minister, 1970-4) was secretly gay.
In This House, just as much as in his earlier, Graham shows that his interest is not in politics but rather in the political process. This House is all about how the whips were able to whip up support for their cause, rather than exploring what that cause is. This is not necessarily a problem; but it should be recognised that the focus of the play is on the minutiae of political manoeuvring that obsesses members of the Westminster Village and infuriates the general public.
This is no more clearly in evidence than when Graham has every character introduced by the Speaker of the House of Commons by their constituency. The drawback is, unless you have a detailed understanding of MPs from the 1970s, most people will only recognise the Honourable Member for Finchley. It works as a commentary on politicians only talking to themselves, but a writer excludes his audience at his peril.
Ultimately, the play starts to drag because, as wonderful as it is to see the Labour whips balancing the various political groupings from whom they need support (or, at the very least, non-opposition) for their legislative programme, it gets repetitive when done more than two or three times in quick succession.
The way the play has been executed is a triumph. Currently playing in the Cottesloe at the National Theatre, the first few rows have been turned in the green benches of the Commons. The cast rush around the stage, seamlessly changing characters to give an impression of the sheer activity of Parliament, and the Whips’ Offices at the heart of Westminster are always a hive of activity. Particular mention must go to Philip Glenister as Walter Harrison, the formidable Labour Deputy Chief Whip, and Charles Edwards as his Conservative counterpart and future Speaker of the House of Commons Jack Weatherill. The chemistry between these two characters is perfect: political combatants, maybe, but honourable enemies nonetheless (in contrast to some of their colleagues).
The success of This House has meant that it is now scheduled for transfer to the Olivier Theatre in February. Whatever the deficiencies in the play itself, it seems the public just can’t get enough of peering into the myopic world of Westminster.
UPDATE 1/6/16: This House is transferring to the Garrick Theatre for a highly-anticipated West End run. Get your tickets here.