Review: This House

This House
Image credit: Johan Persson

After a sell-out run at the National Theatre, This House comes to the Cambridge Arts Theatre, and if the buzz and size of the audience of the play on its opening night is anything to go by, it will be equally popular here. This touring production does justice to the host of 5-star reviews its London counterpart received so don’t miss out on this opportunity to see it here in Cambridge.

It’s 1974-1979 and Britain is in political turmoil. The last election resulted in a hung parliament with Labour as the biggest party but they have to work hard with the minority parties as well as their own to ensure that their legislation is passed. Hot on their tails are the Conservative party whips who are eager to prompt a vote of no-confidence and bring down the Labour government. As the writer, James Graham sees it, ‘The Houses of Parliament [were] under the most strain [they've] ever been under in the history of modern Britain’ (National Theatre 2013.)

As pressure becomes intense to get people into the Commons to vote, the whips become vital to pass laws and it is on them that the play focuses. In the view of the Director, the whips are the ‘unsung heroes of parliamentary procedure’ (James Herrin, National Theatre 2013) and this play gives them centre stage, deliberately not casting the Prime Ministers.

The whips’ office is presented as the engine room of the great parliamentary machine running in parallel with the engine room of the "Big Ben" clock tower. Despite stably ticking throughout the wars and many other rocky periods of British history, the clock suddenly has its first major breakdown in 1976 and was not fixed until the following year. Marked in the play, this event brings into sharp focus just how much of an unusual time in politics this was. Former Lib Dem Leader and Deputy Prime Minister in a hung parliament perhaps better known to our readers, Nick Clegg in the programme draws this comparison between Big Ben and the parliament itself as a ‘metaphor for a political system spluttering to function’ but also ‘a sign of the sheer resilience with which British politics muddles through’.

Resilience is key as the Labour whips face an onslaught of obstacles from illnesses down to faked suicide attempts. At one point, the newest whip and one of the first women in the whips’ office, the plucky and eloquent Ann Taylor (Natalie Grady) is given a screwdriver and told never to be without it: this is to force reticent MPs out of the toilets and get them in the lobby to vote. As this absurd pressure builds between the two parties, fights break out culminating in Michael Heseltine threatening the opposite side with the ceremonial mace for singing ‘Keep the Red Flag Flying High’.

Each of the whips is brilliantly acted from the smart suit-wearing, smooth talking and verging on the Machiavellian Conservative Chief Whip, Humphrey Atkins (William Chubb), to his opposite numbers, the Yorkshire man Walter Harrison (James Gaddas) and cockney Bob Mellish (Martin Marquez) who each acrobatically switch between witty fighting talk and defeatism. This isn’t just a political play, it’s a play about how two opposing sides meet and the competition and camaraderie that can exist between them. The competition drew some large laughs from the audience but at points also inspired stunned silence.

Though I was born in the 90s and was relatively unaware of the events of the play before seeing it, the play brilliantly explains the twists, turns and immediacy of this period and is thoroughly enjoyable. Don’t wait for the whips to summon you – get your ticket now before they sell out!

This House is on at the Cambridge Arts Theatre from the 14th-17th March.

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