After much-acclaimed runs in both the National Theatre and Chichester, James Graham’s play, This House, finally appears in the West End for what has already been a similarly heralded series of performances. It isn’t at all hard to see why. The young and frighteningly talented Graham has taken a topic that hardly screams dramatic appeal – the machinations of the Labour and Conservative parties in the period 1974 – 1979, when Labour held onto power by a fingertip and the threat of a hung parliament was constant – and makes it hilariously funny and hugely gripping. Parallels with our own, constantly eventful, time are never stressed but lurk forever in the background.
Combining fact and fiction, Graham mainly sets the narrative between the two Whips offices. The Labour one is run by Bob Mellish (Phil Daniels) and Walter Harrison (Steffan Rhodri), both plain-speaking working-class men who have little time for the airs and graces of their Conservative opposite numbers, the immaculately accented and suited Humphrey Atkins (Malcolm Sinclair) and Jack Weatherill (Nathaniel Parker). Both sides are forever scheming as to how to get their share of the vote through the doors, and this leads to some riotous scenes of black comedy, almost worthy of Monty Python, as near-dead MPs are dragged through the lobby. Yet Graham’s point is ultimately a serious one; in a democracy, can we expect that our elected politicians always have their country’s best interests at heart, or will the double-dealing and machinations get in the way of basic human decency?
The play is beautifully directed by Jeremy Herrin, who manages to make the action fly by at quite a lick. Three hours feels more like half an hour, thanks to the endless intelligence and verve of the writing, acting and direction; it also helps that there’s a fantastic on-stage band supplying the music, including a couple of apposite David Bowie covers, which add both pathos and irony to the goings-on. The set, designed by Rae Smith, neatly but unslavishly conveys the sense of wood-panelled privilege, and the swift changes in locale around the Houses of Parliament are done superbly.
The acting, of course, is impeccable. For my money, Rhodri and Parker are probably the highlights of the evening as a pair of men on opposite sides of the political divide who nonetheless form an uneasy camaraderie of sorts, governed by mutual respect for the other. The presence of Lauren O’Neil as a Labour whip, somewhat surprised to be the only woman in a boys’ club, is a highly welcome one, and Daniels – unfortunately absent from the second half – gives a suitably big performance as a fixer who backs the wrong horse and loses heavily. But this is a true ensemble effort, and the smaller performances by a versatile ensemble doubling up as various members of Parliament are particularly fine; I especially enjoyed Walter Pidgeon as, variously, Michael Heseltine, Norman St John Stevas and Alan Clark, the latter bemused by others’ surprise that he did not drive his collection of classic cars home rather than letting them take up space in the Parliamentary car park.
After a year that has often seen politics and politicians at their worst and most cynical, This House is a welcome reminder that, amidst the skulduggery and backstabbing, decency and integrity can exist within the system. I see a fine future for this play – a TV or film adaptation seems a logical future – and it will deservedly become a staple of revivals for decades to come. Perhaps not since Jerusalem am I so sure that I have seen a modern classic.
This House at the Garrick Theatre, until February 25th 2017. For more info and tickets, visit the website.