This House at the Garrick TheatreCultureTheatre
The continued relevance of This House, revived first at the Chichester Festival and now the Garrick Theatre, cannot be ignored. While the specifics of the 1974-1979 landscape don’t exactly map to this year’s political nightmare, with Labour besieged by infighting, a vote leaving Great Britain divided and an increasingly partisan split between parties, they are damn close.
Set between the 1974 general election and the 1979 vote of no confidence in James Callaghan’s government, the narrative captures a period of Westminster turmoil that is arguably only matched, in recent memory at least, by the pre- and post-Brexit drama seen in 2016. It’s a time just before the great shift in party make-up, when Labour was built from the blood of the working class and the Tories all seemingly sat in ivory towers.
Each member of the principal cast is pitch perfect. It is hard to imagine anyone else as the self-aware cockney chief whip Bob Mellish than Phil Daniels, while his Tory counterpart Humphrey Atkins, as played by Malcolm Sinclair, oozes upper class condescension. Best of all are Steffan Rhodri’s brash deputy whip Walter Harrison and Kevin Doyle’s unlikely replacement for chief Michael Cocks, with their dysfunctional partnership representing a crossroads between Labours both Old and New.
Throughout This House Jeremy Herrin stacks up an impressive number of theatrical devices. Audience members sit as if part of the Commons – the Speaker of the House announces each MP’s constituency as they enter – and a live band switches from glam to punk rock as the years go by. The production even employs a pair of David Bowie karaoke sessions in two of the play’s more surreal moments. Yet this potentially gimmicky gambit proves to be worth the risk, each aspect only amplifying the fatally frenetic nature of the political lifestyle.
Though heavy on exposition – probably a necessity given the archaic practices and gentlemen’s agreements that provide the backbone of our parliament – the dialogue crackles with the same caustic wit as The Thick of It. There is a key difference between James Graham’s play and Armando Iannucci’s similarly expletive-laden masterpiece, however; where the latter is scathing in its satire, the former holds the role of MP in seemingly far higher esteem. This House portrays politics as an exhausting, sometimes deadly, pursuit, one that can feel like holding back the tide more than producing anything of value. Yet it also shows it to be an oft noble enterprise, a reminder perhaps sorely needed in today’s climate.
Photo: Johan Persson
This House is at the Garrick Theatre from 19th November 2016 until 25th February 2017. Book your tickets here.