It isn’t a ‘bend slowly until it gives’ election, it isn’t a ‘stir gently over a medium heat, reduce to a simmer then serve’ election. It’s a ‘snap’. Quick and painless, off like a plaster.
James Graham’s hit political drama This House is devolving its powers to all corners of this sceptred isle this year – yes, six years after its premiere in the National Theatre, it has seen Chichester, the West End, and now it’s finally on tour. And thank God, it has been worth the wait. A mad account of a maddening time in British politics, and a cripplingly sad chronicle of the deterioration that has led to this current mess: one can understand why they’ve decided to take it on tour now.
Washes of red and blue light set the scene of Tory-Labour confrontation in the House of Commons, fleshed out by audience members, propped up on green-leather seats on either side of the stage and looking appropriately gormless for MPs. The face of Big Ben looms upstage and the constant tick-tock (counting up to the five year Labour government goal) crackles beneath action that swings to the sound of David Bowie. The years seem to wind by in the two-and-a-half hour running time, but it remains energetic and hilarious.
Orlando Wells is particularly funny as smarmy John Stonehouse – the MP who unsuccessfully faked his own death in a bizarre stunt shown here by Wells dipping and diving beneath a blue sheet in slow motion wearing only his underpants. It’s an odd yet glittering sequence, but Wells shines in his mock-unhinged fey interview in which he muses on the sea. Bloody funny. William Chubb is very entertaining as aristocratic Atkins, and Natalie Grady plays ‘token female’ Ann Taylor with a sparky Northern bite.
Matthew Pidgeon gives a finely-tuned and carefully nuanced performance as Conservative Whip Jack Weatherill. A tailor by trade – Weatherill always carried a thimble in his pocket as a reminder of his background – and there is something warm about this blue-tied Tory which is evident throughout, and contrasts subtly against his stuffy colleagues. I thought this was simply the undeniable yet awkward allure of privilege, but Pigeon plays a long game that climaxes as the compassionate heart of the piece, offering to sacrifice his career for the sake of fair play. Pigeon is softly dignified; the moment is devastating in its unexpected decency, but cleverly played by Pidgeon so it doesn’t feel out of character.
It is the moment in the play that will stick with me: Pidgeon’s half-rash sacrifice, leaning up against his desk, frank and vulnerable. The shedding of the facade.
Under Jeremy Herrin’s direction, we have a stylish piece, too. The crush and sweat of politics and the roar of the 70s all merge into a hot pot of British masculinity. Deaths are stunning: with the victims rising and walking with dignity into the light upstage, a reminder that they never got to leave, but Westminster consumed their lives entirely. Elections are shown by a simple turn and a swap of sides, an effective symbol of the fickleness of government, and the eventual meaninglessness. Relevant.
What Graham does beautifully is craft a play to appease a liberal theatre-going Britain whilst being quite alarmingly a-political. That is to say, we can all guffaw at a joke ripping into the sort of barmy quasi-aristocracy represented by the Conservative MP, but This House is essentially a play of political practice, rather than ideology. It seems backwards that a belief in common decency isn’t what we mean by political ideologies – but that’s the way it is, post-Thatcher. The play’s humour is weaved through with almost elegiac conversations make in hollow halls in the quiet, and is always thoughtful. Occasionally the action is utterly gutting.
The final moment of the play, in which Thatcher’s voice rings out like an automation that is horrifically real, and we watch Labour’s Michael Cocks stand petrified as her idea of England creeps in, is almost unbearable.
Ultimately, this play is a masterclass. A flawless balance between writing and performance. It has enough thought to be intelligent and enough sparkle to be pleasing. And, God, does it move.