As we wade through the deepening quagmire that has become Westminster politics, it’s hard not to look back at the Coalition government of 2010-2015 as a brighter more optimistic time in modern Britain. On the surface at least, the hung Parliament offered a chance to put party division aside, forcing politicians to work together and finally reflect what seemed to be a growing public disillusion with opposition for opposition’s sake and the petty playground tactics of party politics. No one thought it would last the year, but from the outside the Conservative-Liberal Coalition government seemed optimistic, fresh and, coinciding with the London Olympics, it was a time of proper compromise, national pride and inclusion.
Of course it wasn’t. As every A-level politics teacher will tell you, coalitions mean instability in which someone always loses, in this case the Liberal Democrats who were decimated at the 2015 election. But from where we are now – divided and uncertain with shambolic leadership – how halcyonic those days of the Coalition now seem. They happen so rarely that they fascinate us, before 2010 the last coalition government was almost 40 years before from 1974-1979, a scrappy affair in which the Whips kept the Labour Party in government by the skin of their teeth for just shy of a full term. Drawing a direct parallel between the two eras, This House, first performed in 2012, and currently on a nationwide tour, is a fascinating insight into “the deals business”.
It’s been a least 5 minutes since someone last heaped praise on writer James Graham, and with two 2018 Olivier nominations for his most recent West End successes, Ink and Labour of Love, and the transfer of his superb new play Quiz in a fortnight, it’s a good opportunity to look back at where it all began, the also Olivier nominated This House. Well, not quite where it all began, there was plenty of admirable fringe work, but Graham’s first big West End show enjoyed runs in two of the auditoria at the National Theatre in 2012 and a 2015 revival in Chichester which then transferred to the Garrick in 2016. Having managed to miss all of these, and a little late to the political party, the current National Theatre tour, which runs until June, docked at the Cambridge Arts Theatre last week, and proves a well-researched and engaging response to our recent political history.
Its 1974 and Labour scrape into power with a wafer-thin majority which, for its team of Whips, means a tough 5 years lay ahead as they are forced to make deals not only with the smaller opposition parties but with their own MPs just to get bills through the House. As they cling to power, it becomes harder to keep the ship afloat, and when an accusation of cheating tears up the informal rule book the Tory Whips amplify hostilities. Is staying in power enough if you can’t actually govern?
Graham’s play utilises three structural pillars to give shape to the rather circular business of Government activity, with the story outlining the many rounds of debate and manipulation required to achieve a majority vote on bill after bill. First, the play limits itself to two main locations, the opposing offices of the main party Whips, where all information, news and drama is distilled effectively through the experiences of these rooms. It ensures the focus of the play remains tightly on this set of decisive characters who we come to know well, while heightening both the dramatic tension and comedic effect as plans and their outcomes are cooked-up and debated by each side.
These are then batted back-and-forth as successive scenes cut from one side to the other, occasionally even completing each other’s sentences or stories like an elaborate and fast-moving game of tennis. Graham avoids repetitiveness by inserting merged scenes where votes are won and lost in the house itself, and a thematic section on the physical and moral decrepitude staged behind the famous Parliamentary clock-face. All of this serves to create a sense of the wider political activity beyond the walls of the office – one of the most successful aspects of This House is the credible world it creates, that all the talking genuinely reflects a high stakes game being played by hundreds of MPs around the building.
Second, Graham uses the role of the Speaker of the House to act as our guide to events, so just as he does in the Chamber, here he announces the constituency name of every MP to appear on the stage. This gives the audience both a sense of the formalities of Parliamentary life and the enormous job of the Whips in trying to balance the far-reaching needs of around 600 elected representatives trying to earn favour for their constituencies or personal advancement in the party. As a theatrical tool, it also allows the cast to play multiple roles in a series of small cameos while helping the audience keep track.
Finally, there are the aspects of construction that have since become hallmarks of Graham’s entertaining style – the integration of music, popular culture references and hyper-real montages that demonstrate a flair for popular engagement. These were less notable in Labour of Love but Ink and Quiz married serious debate with a lightness of touch that rarely combine so well. This House has some full-cast choreographed numbers, quick-fire tableaux as desperate deals are made on the hoof or as the sick are wheeled in to vote, while the onstage band visible leave their hippy stylings behind to embrace the emergence of punk as the 70s wear all. All small but careful touches that add to the richness of the work and the era it reflects.
At its heart, This House is a debate about the purpose of government, when clinging on to power becomes more important than doing any of the things the party was elected for. As the deals become harder to put together, we’re shown the growing separation between constituency and party, between toeing the line and personal conscience, between active government and just keeping the others out. None of it is very pretty or even admirable, but there’s still a sense that the British style of democracy, when it works, is ultimately irreplaceable.
Amidst all of this, Graham still manages to create a set of central characters that the audience can invest in, regardless of their political allegiance. Chief among them is Martin Marquez’s Bob Mellish, a tough working-class bruiser whose realistic management of the Whips office belies a passionate love of the party he’s devoted his career to. Marquez’s sharp characterisation sets the tone for those who fall into his orbit, and it is Bob’s grit that is keeping the Government afloat.
He’s ably supported by a diverse team of largely northern MPs who share his determination. James Gaddas as permanent deputy Walter Harrison is gruff and overly sure of himself but develops meaningfully as the play unfolds, with a deep buried heart and conscience that begin to beat louder. As the first female Whip, Natalie Grady’s Ann Taylor forges ahead growing in confidence as the years pass, introducing a less confrontational style that still produces results – while Bob and Walter may represent the past, Ann is the future. Grady’s Ann well signifies the clash of idealism with the reality of governing, so like her colleagues must eventually confront the ways in which her own dedication to the party obstructs rather than supports democracy.
On the other team, the three Tory Whips couldn’t be more different. But despite their refined manners and expensive suits, Graham avoids caricature with an equally interesting exploration of their dedication to party cause and entitlement to rule that is challenged by Labour’s shaky term in office. William Chubb’s Humphrey Atkins, like Bob Mellish, is a man out of time, representing a style of politics and fair play that is rapidly disappearing. His contempt for the Government is clear with a series of stinging lines, brilliantly landed by Chubb, that present a man finding opposition unfathomable, a blip in the natural order of things.
But it is Matthew Pidgeon’s Jack Weatherill who develops most, the Tory Deputy Whip whose time in opposition brings into question the whole purpose of his role. Pidgeon subtly relays Weatherill’s growing disillusion with party politics and the internal cost to his own self-assurance that comes from increasingly desperate tactics to frustrate the Government. A clever mirror for Walter Harrison, these two very different men start to question what good they’ve really done in a lifetime of party service.
You care about all of these people, regardless of their party stance, and what could have been a collection of geographical stereotypes, becomes a true representation of the country. The wider cast play around 30 constituency MPs, some just after a new carpet or sofa for their office, one who fakes his own death, one arrested for murder, one breastfeeding in Parliament, some from Scotland or Northern Ireland who need to put nationalism before personal gain, plenty of sick and dying, and a few passionately committed to their socialist roots who vote against their centre-moving party including Louise Ludgate’s broadly comic MP who’d rather pay a £20 fine than go against her conscience. We don’t need to know any of these people well, but they are an indication of the wider tide of Westminster and the competing needs that both sets of Whips must manage on every single vote. And it’s a lovely touch to have a few of them go on an audience meet-and-greet during the interval.
Graham’s play is more than a historical documentary, it is a living, breathing evocation of Parliamentary life that has plenty to say about the male-dominated, macho world of party politics that pits ideology against practicality every single day. And while it focuses on the increasingly unstable attempt to make laws, the wider context of party in-fighting, leadership challenges on both sides and the changing demographic of Labour MPs is as much about the here and now as it is the late 1970s where the shadow of Thatcher and irreparable change looms ominously.
The grubbiness of the system Graham presents in This House explains how we ended up here today, and despite growing apathy with all parties, Graham’s writing makes you care about politics again, makes you believe it matters even when it’s broken. Although written in 2012, the cyclical nature of politics means that the play is just as relevant now, with a Government attempting a major democratic change on a tiny majority, having to make unholy alliances just to get things done. The Coalition government of 2010-2015 may seem like a happier time but this is the result, just spare a thought for the poor Whips, the ‘engine-room’ of Parliament who keep it all afloat.
This House is on national tour until 2 June and scheduled to visit Bath, Edinburgh, Nottingham, Birmingham, Salford, Plymouth, Norwich, Malvern, Guilford and Sheffield. Please check local venues for times and prices. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1