Anyone who was taking notice of British politics during the 1970s will no doubt remember the ping-ponging of government between Labour and the Conservatives; the speeches and pronouncements of Edward Heath and Harold Wilson; and the ever-shrinking majority that paralysed the country for months, if not years.
But do you remember Michael Heseltine swinging the mace in anger at his opposite numbers in the house? Or Audrey Wise, the militant Labour MP who continually voted with her conscience and against her own Whips, before getting arrested while supporting the Asian women striking at Grunwick? Or Helene Hayman scandalising members on both sides of the house by breast-feeding her new-born baby in the Palace of Westminster?
The wonderfully inventive and funny play This House brings all these events to life—and many more beyond. It is inspired by real events but, as the author James Graham reminds us in the detailed (and necessary) programme: “it should not be understood as a biography or historical record.” It is a fictional account based on a huge amount of research and original source material.
The action takes place from the point in 1974 when Heath called a snap election, resulting in a hung parliament with Wilson at the helm. We travel through the second election of the same year which resulted in a slender majority for Labour; and on through the four and a half years they hung on by their fingertips; to the point where it finally fell apart in 1979.
The stage setting is fixed throughout, with parliamentary benches at either side, occupied both by members of the audience and a variety of actors. There are two Whips’ offices, where most of the action occurs; and a central section for all the other scenes: debating chamber, cellars, broom cupboard and so on.
But if the stage is static, the actors are anything but. The choreography by the late Scott Ambler, to whom the play is dedicated, was superb. In more that two hours of rushing about, swearing, panicking and celebrating, the eighteen actors appeared word and foot perfect. There wasn’t a slip or pause in the action. The seven Whips were played magnificently, and it would be unfair to single out any one of them by name. But the ensemble was also terrific, continually changing costume, accent and persona. Each one was introduced by the Speaker of the House, by their constituency, hence the need for the programme for interval swotting. Some were instantly recognisable: John Stonehouse, Reg Prentice and the aforementioned Michael Heseltine to name but three.
This House is a National Theatre and Chichester Theatre production, presented by Jonathan Church Productions and Headlong. Its five-day run at Plymouth’s Theatre Royal is finished now, but if you get a chance to see this production elsewhere in the country, don’t miss it.
This was a nostalgic play for people of a certain age but is highly recommended for anyone with an interest in politics or recent history.
It closes with a recording of Margaret Thatcher’s famous quotation from 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’. It seemed to promise a new, more peaceful era after the chaos for the previous five years. Yet with hindsight…