After a much acclaimed run at Chichester and at the National, James Graham’s 2012 play This House transfers to the West End.
Evocative of House of Cards and The Alan Clark Diaries Graham’s play offers an unflinching and detailed account of Westminster life. It centres around the parliament of 1974-9 – a notoriously turbulent period in parliamentary history with a Labour government struggling to govern decisively owing to its slim and often lapsing majority. The play focusses on the strategies deployed by party whips to maintain power and avoid controversy.
The parallels between this period and our own are striking: the central political turmoils of the late 70s included a referendum on Britain’s EU membership, the threat of devolution, austerity measures and entryism within the Labour party. But there are also some striking dissimilarities: Graham presents MPs as being far less concerned about public image, and as coming from backgrounds that were in many ways more varied – though women and minority groups are better represented today, the number of MPs who are non-university educated or from traditional working class backgrounds has fallen dramatically.
Director Jeremy Herrin – whose People, Places, Things also had a major west end transfer last years – has ensured that a text which is full of technical details and which veers across time and place is crystal clear and never anything less than fully engaging. There are some dud choices (parachutes being used to simulate drowning?) and a tendency towards caricature. But equally – some of the scene work is really sensitively handled. Kevin Doyle as Michael Cocks delivers a performance that is full of humour, but also at times surprisingly touching.
It is strange how plays, films and novels about Westminster often end up feeling curiously apolitical. So all-consuming are the traditions, petty-feuds and struggles to maintain power that in representing MPs day-to-day lives the actual issues being fought over are often eclipsed. This House is a play in which party policies are very much in the background, and their impact feels almost entirely abstract. This is probably more a reflection of the nature of Westminster than it is Graham’s concerns as a playwright, but at a time when there is more of a need than ever for political theatre that really engages with the issues affecting (and prompting the disillusionment of) the British public – this sense of detachment means that This House isn’t as satiating as it might be.