It can be universally agreed that politics aren’t an awful lot of fun these days. So a trip to the theatre to watch the turbulent exploits of Labour and Tory whips as they negotiate the chaotic inner workings of the House of Commons might seem an unusual means of escapism. Fear not, however, for This House provides tense, moving and frequently hilarious entertainment from start to finish.
James Graham’s play, which is at the Lowry for the first time, is based on real-life events in Westminster between 1974 and 1979; the programme featuring an extensive list of actual politicians who appear on stage or are referenced during proceedings. Indeed, the large cast rotate between costumes, locations and (occasionally dubious) accents as they play over 60 MPs from across the nation and its political parties.
The fictional central characters are made up of the opposing sets of Labour and Tory whips, those placed in charge of controlling their ‘flock’ of MPS and, crucially, making sure they are present in the House to register important votes. In the red office, animated Londoner Bob Mellish (Martin Marquez) and gritty Yorkshireman Walter Harrison (James Gaddas) are a formidable duo, matched stroke-for-stroke by their blue office counterparts, the eloquent Humphrey Atkins (William Chubb) and the unshakeable Jack Weatherill (Matthew Pidgeon).
In support, Tony Turner is excellent as gentle Michael Cocks, thrown into an unexpected leadership role, and Natalie Grady is an audience favourite as Ann Taylor, newly-elected MP for Bolton who proves that women are more than capable of holding their own in this Seventies boys club.
Politics can be a confusing subject, but the cast are fantastic in giving the audience an entertaining crash course in hung parliaments, voting processes and the weird and wonderful traditions of the Palace of Westminster. Centre stage is a large blackboard detailing the amount of seats each major party hold, together with the “odds and sods” seats of the Liberals, Scottish Nationals et al.
The concept of ‘pairing’ – the notion that if one party’s MP is unable to attend a vote for health reasons or otherwise, the opposition will honourably remove one of their own – is also explained. It becomes central to the plot and, when the system breaks down, the antics of the whips in getting their sick and distant MPS to Westminster by any means necessary are hilarious and heart-breaking in equal measure.
The drama is punctuated by frequent moments of comedy. Disgruntled MPs take a jab at Manchester in lines which no doubt change depending on where the touring production is playing, but it is the needle-making hub of Redditch which is in for most flak. Those in the audience old enough to remember the ‘70s chuckle at the flickering lights and references to the Austin Allegro’s failure to climb hills. Inevitably, the differences in social class between the Labour and Tory protagonists are exploited, such as when Weatherill seeks to broaden his horizons by watching Coronation Street. One scene in which a disgraced Labour MP pays her £20 fine is a masterclass in silent comedy and timing.
Along with the live band treating us to cuts from Ziggy Stardust, This House is performed with highly impressive choreography taking the cast around the stage, and the auditorium, at a whirlwind pace. The wood-panelled set, flanked by the iconic green benches (which audience members can elect to sit on), opens up to reveal secret cupboards and bars, seemingly offering a glimpse into a hidden world, albeit one of 30 years ago.
This said, the audience does leave the Lyric Theatre wondering quite how much has changed. This House has been advertised as timely and prescient for good reason. References to the original referendum on Europe are met with groans of modern recognition; the devolution referendum which becomes so crucial to Michael Cocks’ Labour party is a forerunner to today’s Scottish nationalist politics. As the words of Thatcher cut across the chimes of Big Ben, Westminster, one feels, will always be on the brink of the mayhem enjoyed in This House.
“I’ve loved every minute of it,” an emotional Walter Harrison says of his political career towards the end of the production. You’d struggle to find an audience member who didn’t echo the sentiment.