Theresa May would no doubt sympathise with the Labour government of the 70’s portrayed in This House: a parliament that really is Just About Managing. After four years, this revival of the original National production is just as exhilarating, intriguing and terrifying as ever. Now staged at the Garrick, Jeremy Herrin and Rae Smith have directed and designed a play that opens up the engine room of Westminster in a time of great political turbulence. With an energetic ensemble cast and some lovely individual performances, This House has completed a triumphant return to the London stage. In contrast to many of the current ‘political satires’ that walk the wrong side of lazy parody, this is one that’s actually worth seeing.
As the gears of Big Ben grind to a halt after years of service, so too a hung parliament leads to stalemate in the corridors of power. The action of the play takes place mainly in the whips’ offices on both sides of the House, as every tactic is employed to claw handfuls of vital votes from the minor parties (lovingly branded the ‘odds and sods’). Phil Daniels and Steffan Rhodri’s combustible partnership of cockney chief whip Bob and blunt Yorkshire deputy Walter sets the tone for the Labour camp, whilst on the Tory side Malcolm Sinclair and Nathaniel Parker are icily smooth as Humphrey and Jack.
There is a hilarious dynamism between the opposing parties on stage as they trade insults, witticisms, and occasionally have a barney with the Commons’ ceremonial mace. However much you may disapprove of schoolboy politics, it certainly makes for entertaining theatre. A more measured partnership comes in the form of Kevin Doyle and Lauren O’Neil as new Labour chief Michael Cocks and new whip Ann Taylor; both give honest performances in conveying the stresses and strains of party politics, and the tribulations of those who try and keep troublesome MPs like Sarah Woodward’s wonderfully rebellious Coventry South in line.
The set design seats some audience members on stage, taking up benches around and above the action – a public gallery to the Commons. Subtle but elegant scene changes convey every room of Westminster Palace from dungeons to chapels (via a fair few bars). The Garrick’s proscenium arch presents new challenges for cast and crew, but the stage space still feels smartly utilised. Actors playing several roles disappear as enfeebled Labour MPs and re-emerge as loony Scot Nats or proto-UKIP Tories. Christopher Goodwin and Matthew Pidgeon (at times a scene-stealingly effete Norman St John-Stevas) deserve special plaudits in this regard.
At times there are rock songs played to accompany the turbulent action on stage, and some choreographed group singing too. Everyone is in good voice on the night, but in honesty these mini performances jarred with the rest of the play and felt clearly out of place. Far better when we’re amongst the practical nitty gritty of political machinations.
This House is on until 25th February 2017 at the Garrick Theatre. Click here for more details.