If you enjoy the cut and thrust of Parliamentary politics you will love This House currently on at West Yorkshire Playhouse. But I came away dissatisfied with the play. The story it tells is very well told, but it’s only half a story.
James Graham’s play covers the period 1974-79. With minority governments, dodgy deals and coalitions, a referendum on EU membership the play has echoes (but not necessarily lessons) for today. Labour was in power, just. Firstly with a minority government and then, after a second election in 1974, a wafer thin majority, that was under siege from the beginning from resignations, defection and deaths – 17 Labour MP’s died in office during this parliament.
The action centres on the Whips’ offices, “the engine room” of parliamentary politics. Your job as a Whip (on both sides) is to ensure that the maximum number of MPs vote for your side. The job includes checking the toilets when the division (voting) bell rings, arguing with rebels within your party, doing deals with MPs in other parties and “pairing” absent members.
Pairing is a gentleman’s agreement to “pair” MPs on each side who can’t be present to vote – ministers on foreign trips, MPs in hospital, etc. During this this period pairing broke down leading to scenes of elderly MPs being wheeled into Parliament on ambulance trolleys and ministers being flown home by the RAF.
The events are extraordinary and are often played as high farce, but they are all based on actual events.
Graham succeeds in telling a complicated story with many characters by having the Speaker introduce each new MP
The Whips are the central characters and then there is a large cast of minor characters. To keep the audience on track these MPs are introduced by the Speaker, referred to by their constituency, as they are in the House of Commons. The set is well designed to focus on the whips offices but to double as the Commons chamber without a lot of moving furniture which keeps the high pace moving along. The face of the Big Ben clock looms over the action.
It’s a terrific ensemble performance from the cast who fill a myriad of roles in a fast paced play where one dissolves into the next seamlessly.
Having said all that I left disappointed. Part of the play’s enjoyment for me was being taken back to those events. I lived through that parliament as a teenager, hearing reports of all-night sittings and close votes on the radio news each morning. Nostalgia is always comforting. And yet for a play about politics there was precious little politics on offer.
This House is about the mechanics of Parliament and only hints at the big changes going in society at this time. Left wing MP Audrey Wise is fined by the whips (she defiantly refuses to apologise) for being arrested on the Grunwicks picket line. The Tory Chief whip talks about the need to end the post-war consensus (the welfare state, progressive taxation etc), which the incoming Thatcher government certainly did. But that’s about it.
Tory Prime Minister Edward Heath’s ‘snap’ election, which kicks the play off, is only referred to as a parliamentary tactic that backfires. Heath called the election in the face of two successful miners strikes, asking who rules the country – the government or the unions. The answer he got back was “We’ll it’s not you mate.”
That strength of the union movement is frittered away by the Labour government who pressure the leadership to compromise at every turn. None of this is revealed in the play.
The play ends ambiguously with Thatcher’s chilling words on the steps of Downing Street after the 1979 election quoting St Francis of Assisi: “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.” I say chilling because she did quite the opposite. It is unclear whether James Graham is using the quote to refer to the business as usual between the two whips offices that resumes with a governing party with a clear majority.
Overall then, a very well staged and acted play, but I have reservations about the play itself.
This House runs at West Yorkshire Playhouse until Saturday 10 March 2018. Tickets: £13.50-£31 from the Box Office: (0113) 213 7700 or online here: www.wyp.org.uk/events/this-house