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Review: Dramatic politics in This House, National Theatre

This-House-show-imageThe National Theatre has had more than its fair share of drama this week and I'm not talking about the plays. On Wednesday Simon Russell Beale tripped and broke his finger during a performance of Timon of Athens with his understudy hastily called to fill in for the final scenes.

Then last night, at a preview performance of James Graham's new political drama This House, after being let into the theatre rather late we were informed that Phil Daniels who plays labour whip Bob Mellish was indisposed. The producers could have cancelled, it being a preview after all, but decided instead that the show must go on and an unrehearsed understudy stepped in, script in hand to take the role.

He did a sterling job and, in what was a nice touch, finished his last line throwing his script into a box of belongings his character was moving, as if it was part of the performance.

But what of the rest of the play? Well for someone who knows little about the inner workings of Parliament today let alone in the 1970s pre-television days when this was set, it was fascinating.

Graham has created a fictional story based loosely on some real accounts and anecdotes from those in Parliament at the time. Then, it was unique situation: a hung Parliament followed by a very slim Labour majority which left the latters power precarious at best.

The action primarily takes place in the offices of the Tory and Labour whips where it is a battle of wits, persuasion and guile to get MPs from both parties and the 'odds and sods' ie the Liberals, Scottish, Welsh and Irish MPs to vote on policy. The urgency of the votes, the desperation and tactics get ever more frantic and dirty as Labour fights to avoid a vote of no confidence which would almost be a certainty if it lost a policy vote.

Performed on a rectangular stage with the audience sat on either side in seats that replicate the House of Commons, the two whips offices are at opposing ends with the bottom half of Big Ben looming overhead at one end under which the speaker sits for brief scenes of Parliamentary sessions. If you are sat at the furthest end from the Labour whips there is a bit of neck craning as that is where the majority of the action takes place.

For a play about politics this is a production of high energy. An ensemble of eight actors play 30 characters, mainly MPs that come go and sometimes pop up from within the audience - the chess pieces in the political power game. And, there are some nice flourishes - an innovative drowning sequence involving a sheet,  occasional dance-like choreographed sequence that had faint shades of Enron and live musical interludes.

All the activity and energy makes it quite tiring to watch but I was, in the main, buoyed along by the crackling and amusing script and the urgency of the characters. The behaviour of the whips and MP's is often schoolyard and sometimes reprehensible and I couldn't help wondering just how much of this has been swept away over the intervening years. 

It's a long play at around three hours with an interval and, personally, I felt it could have done with a little trimming as fatigue did start setting in. But if you have even a passing interest in politics then it is worth a look. Despite being set before Yes, Prime Minister it in some ways feels fresher and more pertinent to todays political climate so I'm going to give it four stars.

This House runs in rep at the Cottesloe until December 1 and you can read @polyg's far more eloquent thoughts on her The Other Bridge Project blog.


Bursting with connections but there is one direct Helen Lymberey who is in the ensemble was in ...some trace of her and His Dark Materials with Mr W.