Political turmoil reigns supreme in James Graham’s thrilling and hilarious look behind the scenes at Westminster during the chaotic Labour government of the 1970s.
Set in the beating heart of one of the most unstable and critical periods of British political history, this ingenious production depicts the trials and tribulations faced by the government from 1974 to 1979 in all their frenzied glory, as it battles to remain in power while lurching constantly between slender majority and hung parliament.
The story of this surreal period of British politics is told through the whips of each party – the dogged MPs responsible for making sure their colleagues, and in the case of a minority government a significant number of others, back the party in votes in the House of Commons.
It’s to the great credit of the creator that the show is at once a robust education on the politics of the period, a fun-poking insight into the machinations of Westminster and a shrewd parallel with today’s political landscape.
In truth the remarkable story of the survival of Wilson and Callaghan’s governments need little exaggeration and the story is rightly loyal to a quite astounding timeline of events. Over the course of four and a half years the government contended with the deaths of a number of its MPs, the constantly changing allegiances of the minority parties (sound familiar?), or the ‘odds and sods’ as they were collectively known, and a series of scandals.
It’s a story with political wrangling to rival The West Wing but with none of the gloss - House of Cards with a cup of tea, a fag and a please and thank you for your troubles.
Martin Marquez is terrific as Labour’s tenacious chief whip Bob Mellish and James Gaddas shines as his dogged deputy Walter Harrison; the man doing his best to pull more strings than an orchestra to keep the increasingly fragile government afloat.
Meanwhile on the opposite benches William Chubb channels withering 1970s Tory with staggering precision as the Tories' chief whip Humphrey Atkins and Matthew Pidgeon is excellent as his deputy Jack Weatherill. The interactions between he and Gaddas skillfully capture that very British approach to political opposition; plotting to bring each other down one minute and sharing a joke and a drink the next.
Meanwhile Miles Richardson in the first half and Orlando Wells in the second keep the action moving with ingenious ease as the Speaker of the House and Tony Turner and Natalie Grady are standouts among a stellar supporting cast as Mellish's salt of the earth replacement Walter Harrison and tenacious newbie Ann Taylor respectively.
As the government’s attempts to hang on to power become more and more fraught the story winds its way to its inevitable and poignant conclusion. The show's emotional powder is kept well and truly dry with the result that a scene in which Ian Barritt’s loyal but ailing MP for Batley and Morley finds out his vote may have saved the government from a devastating vote of no confidence is heart-breaking.
Clever staging and lighting allows the action to move at breakneck speed from the gritty Labour whips battling to keep power in one room to the snobbish Tories trying to wrestle it from them in the next (left and right of the stage respectively of course). And in a really nice touch the Commons benches on stage are filled with audience members who get a front row seat from which to observe the action.
Among all of the hilarity and absurdity of this warts and all portrayal of Westminster, This House still manages to leave you with the feeling that Parliament, for all of its flawed traditions, is a grand and ultimately worthwhile institution.
Big Ben, the huge face of which looms over the production throughout, provides a symbol of a fragile Labour government which, in the words of that famous Conservative election poster, ‘isn’t working’ and as Thatcher's iconic words bring the show to a close one can't help but feel a sense of nostalgia for what has been lost.
Nonetheless, though this utterly compelling production portrays a bygone era of Westminster politics, its modern parallels are where it is at its most profound.
It’s a reminder to those old enough to remember, and an education for those who are not, that the political turmoil of today are anything but new. And, in the words of Sir Nick Clegg, a man not inexperienced in minority governments, an exquisite portrayal of the reality of parliamentary democracy, or as Clegg puts it 'one of one of the most enduring dilemmas of politics down the ages - the balance between principle and practice, idealism and reality’.
This House plays at The REP until Saturday 21 April.
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