In praise of ‘This House’

by Stephen Tall on May 16, 2013

A hung parliament against the backdrop of a teetering economy. Parties divided over Europe. The cracks in the UK fuelling separatist demands. The whips are desperately trying to maintain order.

It’s not hard to see the appeal to current audiences of James Graham’s (no, not that one: this one) hit play, This House.

It’s 1974 and the corridors of Westminster ring with the sound of infighting and backbiting as Britain’s political parties battle to change the future of the nation, whatever it takes. In this hung parliament, the ruling party holds on by a thread. Votes are won and lost by one, fist fights erupt in the bars, and ill MPs are hauled in to cast their votes. It’s a time when a staggering number of politicians die, and age-old traditions and allegiances are thrown aside in the struggle for power.

And the good news is that if you haven’t had chance to see it in either of its two sell-out runs in London, then you can watch it live on a screen near you today, Thursday 16th May, as part of the excellent National Theatre Live series. Here’s the trailer:

(Available on YouTube here.)

* Mild spoilers follow *

I saw it this week. The good news is that if you’re a political geek like me (glued to bank holiday election night re-runs?) you’ll love it. The further good news is that if you’re not a political geek (and fear for the sanity of those who’d spend a sunny day indoors watching a too-young-looking David Dimbleby and a cigar-chomping Robin Day) you’ll also love it.

The script is sharp, funny, intelligent, subtle (in fact, pretty much everything The Politician’s Husband wasn’t). The acting is sublime, the ’70s’ music spot-on, and the stage direction (Big Ben looming, rotating green benches, the Speaker introducing everyone by name) keeps everything ticking pacily along.

The central players — the Labour and Tory whips in the 1974-79 parliament — will be largely unknown to all but the uber-politicos: that’s good as it enables the audience to engage with characters who aren’t mere impersonations (though the cameo appearances of more well-known figures like Norman St John Stevas, Michael Heseltine and David Steel are all enjoyable). The deputies — Labour’s Walter Harrison and the Tories’ Jack Weatherill — are the real protagonists, each gradually bending towards their parties’ more classless destinies.

The themes are timeless and timely… How much (if any) compromise can be justified, not least to yourself? How far does, and should, party loyalty hold sway? To what lengths would you go in pursuit of victory? Is it right to make friends with your enemy’s enemies? And can you survive the machinations, intrigue and skulduggery necessary to succeed and still remember the ideals that motivated you in the first place?

James Graham lets no-one off the hook, including the electorate (one of the flaws of much modern political drama/satire is its cowardly refusal to hold a mirror up to the audience). Yet even the most stereotypical, played-for-laughs characters are permitted some redemptive reflection. And the ending, when Walter and Jack arrive at a selfless stand-off, has a crisp, unashamed nobility to it.

Politics is little different from most careers, much of life: flawed humans, mostly trying to do good, sometimes succeeding, and sometimes failing. That’s the reality This House is unafraid to show: the funny mess that is politics is the human condition played out on the theatrical stage of Parliament.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

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