There’s something alienating about politicians and the warrens and nests they make for themselves; superannuated prefects and head boys, they seem like neatly contained packages of modulated personality, underneath a shiny carapace of irreproachable affability. In the 1974 setting of James Graham‘s play though, there’s a sense that everything was a bit rougher round the edges.
This House, which premiered at the Cottesloe before transferring to the Olivier, crafts a stuffy, threatened Westminster in resolutely unstuffy style; the dying days of Labour government have never looked so alive. This is an ensemble piece on a grand scale; there’s a real thrill watching the cast march in like an army, an introduction to the parade ground of parliamentary votes, where absence is unforgivable. The split focus alternates between the Chief Whip’s offices on the Labour and Conservative sides, neatly delineated by a split stage. Labour’s uneasy victory at the play’s opening sees office-swapping, chair-comparing glee subside into determination as the reality of a hung parliament sets in, while across the corridor, the Conservative lament their undignified position, and make increasingly targeted attempts to return to power.
At first the split seems obvious, even hackneyed; Labour’s sonic rainbow of regional accents springing from trade union and industrial backgrounds, while the Conservatives are sneering products of boarding schools, watching Eastenders as one might view a wildlife documentary. Over time, though, the play increasingly resists a straightforward, expected, heroes versus villains dynamic. Labour’s Walter Harrison (Reece Dinsdale) presides in brilliantly ramshackle style over a team so desperate to cling on that they coax, bully and blackmail the sick and nursing mothers into maintaining their majority of one, while the Conservatives’ slipperiness hides a bedrock of seldom glimpsed schoolboy honour.
The play’s tight focus on the Houses of Parliament is a source of flawed strength. Its labyrinthine form shelters a mine of arcane locations for scenes, with secret meetings conducted in a shooting range, or amongst medieval charter rolls, shadowed by the ominously stilled clock-hands of Big Ben. By focusing on the back rooms and mostly back room boys, though, we miss the wider political and social changes going on in the outside world; the turmoil of the mid-1970s, abetted by a government powerless to take action, sends only faint ripples through teams focused blindly on vote after vote, while class differences are fodder more for salty gags than meaty analysis.
Those who grew up at the time might miss its radicalism and optimism, here only seen through the filter of an aging Labour party, struggling to contain it; the energy of the world outside is best conveyed by the onstage rock band, an invigorating centre to an aesthetic beautiful in its variation. Rae Smith’s thrilling design places audience onstage, sheltering transformations hatching from a contained place; Lauren O’Neill as Ann Taylor metamorphoses from long-haired, floral ingenue to besuited near-tyrant, while a drowning at sea occurs submerged under a billowing white sail, a familiar device made surprising by contrast with the stuffy, upholstered setting.
Although the subject matter here is light in modish appeal, it still feels fresh in the way it pokes at the threadbare underbelly of the 1970s, its potential for television Best Of’s now unseamed by scandal. Well-directed towards accessibility by Jeremy Herrin, this house bursts with ideas and stratagems to shake off stasis, the torpor of decaying government, tricking an audience dulled by spin and shiny personality into caring about its occupants.
Read the Exeunt interview with James Graham.