Written by the mind behind ITV’s Quiz and directed by People, Places and Things’ Jeremy Herrin, This House is a witty, heartfelt insight into the struggles of the Labour Government in the late 1970s.
I was worried that my lack of knowledge of 1970s politics would hinder my enjoyment of This House, but that couldn’t have been further from the truth. Political concepts are explained without patronising the audience. Obviously, politicians don’t really sit around giving each other detailed explanations of the concept of “pairing” or the importance of the “odds and sods”, but in this instance, it is done so naturally that it doesn’t seem out of place. As well as this, the audience benefits from a chalkboard which clearly depicts a hung parliament, and then Labour’s fluctuating majority. We are taken on a journey with the Labour and Tory whips from John Stonehouse’s faked suicide, to Harold Wilson’s resignation, ultimately leading up to the election of Margaret Thatcher.
So many successful pieces of British theatre have been inspired by Thatcher’s Britain: Billy Elliot the Musical; Jim Cartwright’s promenade piece Road; Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, to name just a few. It is of particular interest, then, to watch a play which outlines the events leading up to her election. The play captures the reality that a single decision can change the entire course of history; as writer James Graham explains, James Callaghan’s Labour Government lost the 1979 vote of no confidence by one vote. Thatcher was elected in May of that year.
The staging of this production is far more dynamic than you might expect from a political drama. It has an immersive feel, which is an impressive achievement in The Olivier (the National’s largest theatre). On top of the thousand-odd auditorium seats, some of the audience is seated on the House of Commons benches, while others are on the balcony where Big Ben’s clock face looms. At some points, the green benches are in traverse, to mimic the government vs the opposition, placing those audience members in the midst of the action. At other times, they are directly facing the auditorium audience, reminding them (and the viewers livestreaming from home) that politicians are always being watched; whatever they do, there are millions of eyes waiting to scrutinise every move.
A live band plays punky renditions of classic, 1970s Bowie hits, providing a well-needed energy lift after scenes which occasionally drag. Movement-based scene changes further inject some vitality into the performance, some of which seem to draw a parallel between politics and football; an audio montage of radio news almost becomes a football match commentary while hooligan-esque fights break out between MPs. This motif is carried through the play, which speaks to an idea that feels all too real today: British politics is nothing but a game – with Parliament as its playground. When politicians obsess over tactics and how to “win”, and the other side is accused of “cheating”, it’s easy to forget that these people are meant to be running the country for the good of its people. Graham criticises the British political system with a satirical touch; an MP is bribed to vote against the needs of her constituents with the promise of a swanky new office chair.
Lauren O’Neill is admirable as Labour’s Ann Taylor, who dreams of being the first woman chief whip (which she achieved, but not until 1998). Her narrative depicts the everyday adversities of being a woman in a boys club; a poignant conversation sees her request that chief Michael Cocks (Vincent Franklin) stop apologising to her for swearing, explaining that she just wants to “fit in as one of the lads”.
Along with sexism in parliament, This House explores themes of political thought. First-past-the-post and the two-party system are called in question, topics that remain heavily debated today. An interesting discussion compares motivations behind the voting strategies of MPs – should it be for the good of the constituents or the shared ideals of the party?
The ability for a show about politics to have me on the edge of my seat is a testament to its success. A little known area of British political history is brought to life with brilliant direction, striking performances, and subject matter that is not too dissimilar from current events.
Words by Franky Lynn.