Wednesday 28th February 2018 at West Yorkshire Playhouse.
This House is taking a tour after an impressive run at the National Theatre. Written by James Graham and directed by Jeremy Herrin with Jonathan O’Boyle, the production takes us behind the parliament looking glass to the House of Commons to witness the bustle, challenges and fraught relationships of the vying political parties during the famed ‘hung parliament’ in the 1970s. It sees a flailing Labour Party desperately trying to keep hold of the reins as the majority number weakens and strengthens by the hour. The party must cajole, beg and negotiate the ‘odds and sods’ outside of the two major parties to secure any progress during their ever tense four and a half years at the helm. It’s a pacy production from the National Theatre and Chichester Festival Theatre which sees an awful lot packed into what is notably an over-long production. Entertaining and produced with stylish modern flair throughout, I only wish the piece had scrapped some of the more repetitive and formulaic elements of vote taking and behind the scenes discussions to allow the production to really excel as a snappier piece of politically conscious theatre.
This House offers an engaging view of the inner sanctum; a boy’s club of loud men with confident strides and awful 70s suits. A large cast conjure Westminster through some impressive multi-roling and very explicit use of stereotypes which heartily invite ridicule. The ‘aristotwats’ are uppity and fond of their extended vowels while the vulgar Labour Party are lairy and full of bellowed foul language. There’s much comedy found through this stereotyping, with the Tories finding themselves the butt of more jokes than Labour and there are some well placed running jokes to acknowledge the problematic presence of women in the ranks at this point – only just pre-Thatcher for the most part. Scenes in the chamber are chaotic and loud, as are many of the exchanges in private offices – it’s a production which captures drama and tension well whilst also offering aptly timed and intelligently placed comedy (albeit while presenting often ridiculous or shambolic moments). I’d have liked to see more of the men behind the political role for some greater variety but the production primarily plants every character as a mere pawn in a game of Chess.
There are excellent performances from the likes of William Chubb as the upright and uptight Humphrey Atkins, Martin Marquez as the cockney geezer and man of the people Bob Mellish as well as James Goddas, who plays an intense but swaggering Walter Harrison. Natalie Grady is our ‘token woman’ of the Labour Party as Ann Taylor – fighting for a seat at the table, the character grows in stature until she can eventually hold her own in a room of intense volume while the men continue to beat their chests. The best comic talent can be found in Harry Kershaw (definitely one I’ll continue to watch after already being impressed by Peter Pan Goes Wrong) who excels and steals scenes as a wide array of characters each with their own ticks, accents and hideous wigs. Nicholas Lumley also impresses as the archetypal toff whose creative outbursts never fail to raise laughs. Another star turn for comedy in this production is the hilarious Louise Ludgate who channels strong willed women with a keen eye for quirks and comic timing. Skilled with accents which make her various roles nicely distinctive, each scene featuring Ludgate is a highlight.
While engaging to watch the turbulent years play out, complete with party game-playing and back scratching, the subject matter feels dry at times and there’s a definite sense of lull to some scenes, particularly the scenes mirroring earlier ones to show the progression and lapses in party favour. It’s a canny choice to have the Speaker announcing each fleetingly present MP by their title rather than name, as I’m not convinced that enough of any given audience would recognise civilian names within this political panorama. However, those constant announcements do become tiresome at times even though they also create some lovely moments of easy laughter. As a whole though, the fluency of the production counters some of the more static scenes well – yes, some scenes are over-long, but the production values are high and it’s never less than engaging to watch the dramatics unfold. A live band on an upper level offer a surprising rock score to jar with the political warfare playing out below – the musical snippets offer rousing segues as the cast reform for each gradually changing year.
Set design from Rae Smith is concise; evoking the chambers of Westminster is no easy feat I’m sure, but Smith’s designs allow for several sets to take hold without any shuffling of set pieces. We have two grids outlined side by side centre stage, lit in sequence to show the offices of the Labour and Conservative MPs – the space triples as offices, the bar and the chamber without ever needing physical change. The offices are dated and don that famous Westminster green while sensitive and prominent lighting (Ben Pickersgill) alone cues the setting shifts, manipulating our focus skilfully. Simple projections on the top level conjure secretive spaces in the rafters for furtive meetings while the face of Big Ben looms large behind. Cherubs hidden on eaves are lit while Big Ben is replaced with an imposing stained glass window to indicate a shift to church – it’s all very slick and visually appealing.
This House is a slick piece of stylish satire which offers an unusual take on Political party frictions while keeping a sharp focus on wit and humour throughout. The subject matter is no doubt worthy and the story told is certainly an engaging one, with the desperation levels of the Labour Partly captured with great energy but it would perhaps appeal to those with some knowledge of the actual events and the general political sphere more than those looking for an easy hoot and a half at the expense of quirky or risible politicians. As with any political piece currently playing in our theatres, there are pointed connections to the frictions and parallels between these historical happenings and the current political climate – the most apparent and powerful being a sense of despair and desolation to think that such dramatic chaos is happening behind the looking glass of 2018…we can only hope that the current politicians aren’t quite so childish in their games behind closed doors!
This House was produced in the West End by Nick Burns, Neal Street Productions and Headlong. It plays at West Yorkshire Playhouse until March 10th before continuing its tour and you can find tickets here.