Garrick Theatre, London (****)
James Graham is turning into one of our most treasured stage political commentators. Having first emerged ten years ago with the small but perfectly formed (and award winning) Eden’s Empire at the Finborough, This House, which has taken on a life of its own since its first appearance at the National Theatre in 2012 in the Cottesloe Theatre is on a far grander scale. Transferred to the Olivier, then revived this year at Chichester, it now sits grandly in the West End, complete with on-stage seating, rock band, glowered over by the face of Big Ben.
Some journey and telling some tale, Graham’s portrait of Labour’s stormy term in office in 1974-79 as a minority government is a dizzying, brilliantly conceived satire based – not unlike Jonathan Lynn and Anthony Jay’s hugely successful Yes, Minister and Prime Minister series – on the farcical highs and lows our politicians manage to create.
But instead of Ministers, Graham goes for the hub, the `engine room’ as it’s been dubbed, in the Whips office, as did Steve Thompson’s equally successful – `whips, they’re all bastards’ – political farce, Whipping It Up in 2007.
When first seen at the Cottesloe, Graham’s coarse, working-class mob led by the nuts-and-bolts Bob Mellish seemed unduly stereotypical, perhaps because we had already moved on into the middle-class `New Labour’ years. The cloth cap, sons of toil Labour members of parliament were already being consigned to yesterday’s history.
Four years on, post Referendum, Brexit, the rise of UKIP and the rest, director Jeremy Herrin has, it seems to me, upped the ante on both sides. The satire of the Tory grandee Whips – Malcolm Sinclair’s Humphrey Atkins and Nathaniel Parker’s Jack Weatherill – are now every bit as edged as Phil Daniels’ Mellish or Steffan Rhodri’s wonderfully potent Walter Harrison.
Herrin’s production is a dashing affair, played at full clip with plenty of panache and though fictional, plies its story through the naming – and good-natured shaming – of constituency MPs.
So there are rare and often very funny glimpses of household names such as Norman St John-Stevas floating through as well as the member for West Lothian, Tam Dalyell amongst a host of others. Even Coventry South West’s awkward squad, Audrey Wise and Bolton West’s Ann Taylor get a look in, though, being the 1970s, the gender gap then – as now – is wide.
Graham too has a message to impart, caught in throwaway lines such as `muddling through’ or Atkins description of the Westminster system as one of attrition and tribalism. Coming away you’re left with the profound impression of a chauvinistic not to say anachronistic system so reliant on petty game-scoring and shafting the opposition it’s a wonder anything got done at all.
A terrific cast is led by Malcolm Sinclair’s silky `Sir’ Humphrey (Atkins this time!) and Nathaniel Parker as the smooth wheeler-dealer, Jack Weatherill matched by Daniels’ blazing Mellish, Rhodri’s hard-working deputy, and not least Kevin Doyle’s Michael Cocks – thrust into the limelight as Chief Whip, more retiring than his predecessor and infinitely more human.
Hugely enjoyable, conveyed with warmth as much as belly laughs and chuckles, it’s nonetheless a salutary critique on our addled parliamentary system, desperately in need of change and growing up.
This House runs at the Garrick Theatre to Feb 25, 2017
This review first published on this site, Dec 10, 2016
Bob Mellish: Phil Daniels
Walter Harrison: Steffan Rhodri
Michael Cocks: Kevin Doyle
Joe Harper: David Hounslow
Ann Taylor: Lauren O’Neil
Humphrey Atkins: Malcolm Sinclair
Jack Weatherill: Nathaniel Parker
Fred Silvester: Ed Hughes
The Members Chorus:
Clockmaker/Peebles/Redditch/Armagh/Stirlingshire West/Ambulance Man/Clerk & Ensemble: Robert Gilbert
Batley & Morley/Woolwich West/Belfast North/Western Isles & Ensemble: Christopher Godwin
Oxshott/Belfast West/St Helens & Ensemble: Peter Landi
Ayrshire/Henley/Marioneth/Coventry North West/Rushcliffe/Perry Barr & Ensemble: Matthew Pidgeon
Speaker Act I/Mansfield/Serjeant at Arms Act II/West Lothian & Ensemble: Giles Taylor
Bromsgrove/Abingdon/Liverpool Edge Hill/Paisley/Fermanagh & Ensemble: Tony Turner
Walsall North/Plymouth Sutton/Serjeant at Arms Act I/Speaker Act II/Caernarfon/Clerk & Ensemble: Orlando Wells
Rochester & Chatham/Welwyn & Hatfield/Coventry South West/Ilford North/Lady Batley & Ensemble: Sarah Woodward
All other parts played by members of the Company
Understudies and Ensemble:
Helen Barford, Charlie Buckland, Andy Hawthorne, Ian Houghton
Acoustic Jim & The Wires
Musical Director/Guitar/Vocals: Jim Hustwit
Bass/Keys/Vocals: Sam Edgington
Drums: Cristiano Castellitto
Guest Vocals: Phil Daniels & Robert Gilbert
Director: Jeremy Herrin
Designer: Rae Smith
Lighting Designer: Paule Constable
Music: Stephen Warbeck
Choreographer: Scott Ambler
Sound Designer: Ian Dickinson (for Autograph Sound)
Casting Director: Alastair Coomer CDG
Costume Supervisor: Lydia Crimp
Company Dialect & Voice: Penny Dyer
World premiere of This House at the Cottesloe, National Theatre, Sept 25, 2012 and at the Olivier Theatre on Feb 28, 2013.
Revived at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester, Sept 23, 2016, and transferred to the Garrick Theatre from Nov 19, 2016.
Produced by Nica Burns, Caro Newling for Neal Street Productions, Headlong in assoc with Jonathan Church Productions, Gavin Kalin Productions, TC Beech Ltd
A National Theatre and Chichester Festival Theatre production.