Legend has it that the distance between the front bench of the Government and that of Her Majesty’s Opposition is the length of two swords, tip to tip. Given that weapons have been banned from the House for centuries, writer James Graham has had to rely on good old-fashioned political fisticuffs for This House, his 2013 take on the five years leading up to what became known as the Winter of Discontent.
The period in the UK between 1974 and 1979 saw four Prime Ministers – two Conservative and two Labour – and, if Graham’s play about the back-room machinations of the two main parties is anything to go by, enough political intrigue to make Machiavelli look like a children’s TV presenter.
On the surface, Graham paints a House divided between the Champagne-sipping, classical music-listening Conservatives and the saveloy-munching, beer-swilling Labour Party. In one telling and biting interchange, a Conservative member brushes off a Labour member by telling him, “I don’t work with manmade fibres”. Either way, all members of the house are ‘temporary trustees’ and walk a very fine line, and Graham makes the most of a political era that could well be seen as the turning point of modern politics.
At the heart of This House is a simple wager between Deputy Whips Walter Harrison (Reese Dinsdale) and Jack Weatherill (Charles Edwards): that Labour wouldn’t last the full term. What is central to this relationship, thanks to strong performances from both Dinsdale and Edwards, isn’t political one-upmanship or the back-room deals played out by others. It is the dignity and respect they have for one another and the political machine – albeit one resulting in a vote of no confidence and the beginning of 18 years of Conservative rule.
Without a sword’s length in sight, dialogue is delivered with rapier-like precision, and Graham’s play has the feel of a thriller, whilst delivering the laughs and comfort of your favourite sitcom – with a live band to boot. Phil Daniels as Chief Whip Bob Mellish and, later, as guest vocal for the band is a once-in-a-generation theatrical treat.
With a central cast of seven, including a heart-thumping performance, from Vincent Franklin as Michael Cocks and the breath of fresh air and much-needed female energy from Lauren O’Neil as Ann Taylor, James Graham‘s This House provides an irresistible insight into political tribalism and, thanks also to director Jeremy Herrin and designer Rae Smith, a masterclass in storytelling.
National Theatre at Home can be found here.
Originally published on Broadway World.