James Graham makes parliament personal in his 2013 National Theatre Live production of This House. The play takes a quasi-fictional behind-the-scenes look at the struggles of the Labour government from 1974 to 1979; from a hung parliament to a slim majority, all the way to the vote of no confidence—311 to 310—which brought Thatcher to power.
Photo: Johan Persson
It’s not a stiff political drama by any means—Graham’s script packs humorous punches, which at times slip into dark territory when MPs in various states of illness, one wheeled into the house with an oxygen tank, risk their health to cast their vote—perhaps taking the phrase “nobody dies in the Palace of Westminster” too literally. However, This House did establish playwright James Graham as a striking political voice. In the years since its premiere at the National Theatre in 2012, Graham brought us The Vote, a play at the Donmar Warehouse which was aired on television on the same night of the 2015 general election, as well as the timely Channel 4 dramas Coalition and Brexit: The Uncivil War.
In This House, Graham humanises politicians through his imagined, charmingly witty, The West Wing-meets-The Thick of It dialogue from behind the walls of the House of Commons. The sharp exchanges amongst the Labour and Conservative whips whom the play follows provide refreshing respite from the rehearsed and clipped discourse we are so used to seeing from MPs, and invites you to consider the kind of conversations taking place in Parliament today, particularly under the current fraught situation. In one scene, Tory deputy chief whip Jack Weatherill, played with haughty brilliance by Charles Edwards, recounts the action of the Coronation Street episode he’s watching to his cynical colleague, admitting in amusingly incongruous Queen’s English that it’s “really rather good”. A live rock band punctuates and lifts the action of the production, providing a soundtrack for the handful of more abstract, choreographed numbers which includes John Stonehouse faking his own death by drowning to the sound of crashing waves and Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide by David Bowie.
Ultimately, James Graham reminds us of the fragility of parliament; as Labour chief whip Bob Mellish (Phil Daniels) remarks in the play’s closing scenes: “I think it would work fine this thing—British democracy—if it weren’t so reliant on people.” The whips spend the majority of the play rounding up the “odds and sods” (the members of the minority parties) and getting them on side. In politically shifting times This House reminds us how easily history can be changed by the presence of a single person.
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Edited by Alexia McDonald, Head Digital Editor