By James Graham
National Theatre, Olivier Theatre, London SE1 9PX
Reviewed by Jarlath O’Connell, March 25, 2013
Now booking for West End transfer to the Garrick Theatre *
Jeremy Herrin’s production of James Graham’s new play for the National Theatre takes a potentially dry and wordy subject, and through a whirligig of movement creates theatrical magic. Despite this frenetic pace, it loses none of its seriousness. Think of The West Wing, but in polyester suits.
In 1974 the country endured three governments and two general elections in one year. The second election brought Labour back into power under Jim Callaghan, but with a paper thin majority, and the government had to stagger on through industrial strife and economic chaos, until Mrs Thatcher descended in 1979 with her new broom.
With a dwindling majority as some of the older and more infirm Labour MPs fell ill or died (they originated from the mines and not Eton and so had worse “health outcomes”, as they say today), the Whips’ Offices (party policy enforcers) came into their own. You might be just out of surgery or clinging to an oxygen tank for each breath, but the Whips made sure they dragged you through those lobbies in case a lost vote triggered a ‘No Confidence’ motion and another General Election. This is where Scott Ambler’s witty and fluid direction comes into its own. The government was totally dependent on which side could woo the small parties and independents, or the “the odds and sods” as they were so wonderfully termed.
Rae Smith’s clever design puts the familiar green benches of the House of Commons on the stage and fills them with audience members leaving some room for the cast. In front are the two Whips’ Offices, the government one with slightly better chairs. As governments came and went the two sides exchanged rooms, like football teams swapping sides. The PM or Cabinet Members are unseen, as this is the domain of the foot soldiers doing the dirty work.
A superbly versatile ensemble cast of 16 portray a vast panoply of real life politicians. Phil Daniels shines as the uber-cockney geezer Bob Mellish who wasn’t averse to throwing a punch. His verbal sparring with his Tory counterpart, the clubbable Humphrey Atkins (gloriously incarnated by Julian Wadham) is a joy. Charles Edwards too provides solid support as the dapper deputy Jack Weatherill. In those days, before the New Labour got overrun by bright young things from Oxbridge, the class divisions were much more pronounced. In today’s grey muddle those certainties seem quaint.
If you’re familiar with British politics the piece has untold riches but if not, don’t be put off, as this Parliament’s greatest exports, horse trading and filibustering, will be familiar to anyone with an interest in house politics.
Graham cleverly elucidates how a two party system really is in the DNA of most British politicians, and it explains too why so many still recoil in horror at coalitions. That’s not playing our game.
Old divisions can take a long time to die out however; David (now Lord) Steel’s quip that “Tories ultimately fail because they feel entitled to power; Labour fails because they don’t”, still has a ring of truth.
* This House is transferring to the Garrick Theatre for a highly-anticipated West End run, beginning on November 19th 2016. For details of dates and casting, or to purchase tickets click here