Set in the depths of Westminster during 1974's hung parliament and economic crisis, when each and every MP's vote was crucial, This House explores the tragi-comic dramas going on behind the scenes. Before House of Cards brought us Frank Underwood, playwright James Graham put the practicalities of British politics in this play about the Whips responsible for driving votes from a contrary collection of MPs. But instead of intense drama and murder, we have farcical traditions and long, dogged power struggles.
It takes a while to adjust to the customs and language of politics – brash Northern expletives on one side and clipped public school barks on the other. But as the besuited characters emerge as more and more human, their plight is engrossing and affecting.
There is a tug over war over the 'odds and sods' (an affectionate nickname for ministers who are neither Labour or Conservative). It's played out with a combination of elaborate theatricality, petty playground tactics and stiff drinks. There's much humour but moments of real pathos too. We get access to all the action in the engine rooms of the Houses of Parliament. Aptly, Labour are on the left of the stage; Conservatives are on the right.
Director Jeremy Herrin plays upon the performative element of politics with a live rock band in the corner, punctuating policy-making and plotting with a tremors of live music. The effect is at once solemn and surreal. Against the unchanging panelling of Westminster 'Palace', costumes are gloriously retro 1970s (prepare to chortle at the Member for Chelmsford's flicky bouffant).
The story of the party fractures and ineffectual ruling that paved the way for Thatcher's long reign should feel like pure history. When it premiered back in 2012, This House drew a shrewd parallel with the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition government. Now, post Brexit, peak Corbyn, and in a year where politics has consistently dominated headlines, the play has a broader resonance.
It exposes the futility of democracy and reveals that the reality of ruling has everything to do with power and nothing to do with policy. That sobering vision is as real now as it was in 1974.
|What||This House, Garrick Theatre review|
|Where||Garrick Theatre, 2 Charing Cross Road, London, WC2H 0HH | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Leicester Square (underground)|
19 Nov 16 – 25 Feb 17, 7:30 PM – 10:00 PM
|Price||£20 - £55|
|Website||Click here to book via Culture Whisper and Seetickets|