Vote with your body
This House, James Graham, National Theatre at Home, 28 May – 4 June 2020
Undeniably, the UK has experienced a turbulent political era in the last five years, but it certainly meets its match in the five running from 1974 to 1979. From fistfights in parliament, to faked deaths, to MPs brought in to vote from their hospital beds, this period saw it all. In the critically acclaimed This House, playwright James Graham and director Jeremy Herrin masterfully capitalise on parliament’s real-life melodramatics, creating an accessible political drama exploding with tension and laughter.
With a wavering majority in the late 70s, Labour struggled to keep their grip on power and to pass any bills. Graham principally sets This House in the Labour and Conservative’s whips’ offices, the parties’ engine rooms, cutting between their perspectives as each try to outplay the other. Voting becomes a matter of life and death. Graham emphasises the personalities behind the politics, exploring the constant bargaining and bartering behind parliamentary votes, and creating colourful and empathetic characters, with as much individuality in central ones as the numerous walk-on MPs.
While the two whips’ offices are only metres down the corridor from each other, in many ways they are worlds apart. Much of the narrative interest hinges on Graham’s class commentary: the Tories are so-called ‘aristotwats’ in their sharp suits reciting Latin, set against Labour’s motley crew of former electricians and miners with working-class accents. While these characteristics are perhaps not so distinguishable today, This House reminds us of each party’s roots and provides plenty of comic material, especially in their frequent sparring. However, Graham never forces his satire or strays to caricature, maintaining realism throughout. A lefty himself, he certainly characterises Labour more sympathetically but avoids making the Tories pantomime baddies, instead emphasising politics’ nuances, with faults on either side of the aisle.
Graham’s most intriguing class commentary manifests in the friendship between the two opposing deputy whips, Walter Harrison (Reece Dinsdale) and Jack Weatherhill (Charles Edwards). He captures their unique partnership, with the pair’s bargaining, betting and jokes forming compelling narrative interludes characterised by mutual respect. While both try to better understand the other, through opera and Coronation Street respectively, Graham artfully matches their temperaments, convincing us that this unusual friendship ultimately had a profound historic impact. Dinsdale and Edwards thrive in these roles, creating charismatic characters as they couple skilful comedic timing with convincing authority and intelligence befitting a parliamentarian – more convincing perhaps than some sitting on the benches today.
Vincent Franklin as Chief Labour Whip, Michael Cocks, is also worthy of mention. His whole physique articulates forcefully the stress of the job, constantly quivering on the edge of breakdown as his hands shake and his voice rises to a shout. Lauren O’Neil’s performance of Ann Taylor is notable for her portrayal as an MP growing in confidence, her tone and posture evolving as Ann carves out a place for herself in ‘the boys’ club’.
The impressive set distils the hallmarks of Westminster: a projection of Big Ben’s face looming over the benches and the two whips’ offices. Less typical is the live band on stage, whose incongruous rock music punctuates the performance, aptly, if somewhat incongruously, representing the world developing outside of the House of Commons. While audiences would usually sit in the round in this production, and therefore likely to miss elements of the action, virtual audiences are privileged to the most minute expressions, as the camera continually cuts to the centre of action. To salvage some of the ambiance, in a thoughtful replacement of the theatre’s themed House of Commons bar, the National Theatre asked Jay Rayner to devise a ’70s cocktail for audiences to enjoy at home.
Early on, we are told that ‘you vote with your body’ and that’s certainly the angle Graham takes. With originality and wit, This House reminds us that behind every vote and decision there’s a multitude of personal elements: pints, a promised office renovation, sometimes even an aborted operation. This hilarious and touching comedic drama makes for an engrossing, fast-paced watch, and an intelligent questioning of British politics’ absurdities, prompting continued reflection on our government today.
Words by Katrina Bennett.
This House is free to stream on the National Theatre’s YouTube channel until Thursday 4th June.
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