I like a production that announces itself with a bang. And This House is such a production. The energy of the first entrance, in addition to the set, both intimate and imposing – the Cottesloe never looked this huge, make a clear statement and from the first few minutes I knew this production will be something special. The next three hours didn’t disappoint.
This House is set in the House of Commons between 1974 and 1979, when Labour, with a tiny majority (or often with no majority at all) was trying to hold onto power. The period has inescapable drama and Margaret Thatcher looms large: not in the choices of the characters but in the mind of the audience, we know the consequence of those choices even if they don’t. The action is largely set in the offices of Tory and Labour whips, with excursions to almost all parts of the building (toilets, corridors, basements, chapel) but we see very little of the House of Commons’ main chamber. This story is set at the bowels of power. The Cottesloe is made to look like the debating chamber but that only reinforces the point: the backstage drama is central to politics, only punctuated by the political debate.
James Graham (who wrote The Man, one of my favourite plays of the last few years) makes a marvellous job of the story: his script is astute, funny but, most of all, interested in the human condition: these people plod along, get confused, are not always clear about what they can achieve. Characters with very few lines are still fleshed out to a poignant presence. This is a world before media spin and expenses scandal. It’s a world where politics – both the debate and backstage action – can relate to real life. The writing has flair and substance, and the result is fast, funny, involving and unexpectedly moving.
Jeremy Herrin‘s direction is strong and doesn’t shy away from bold choices: the soundtrack is a live rock band, characters dance and break into song, the sea is recreated in the middle of an office setting. The production is so confident that can switch from naturalistic pieces to externalising the thoughts of the characters and all elements are combined in a coherent world of tremendous energy. It reminded me of Collaborators, which was one of my favourite productions last year.
Performances are great across the board and it’s a true ensemble piece: Philip Glenister (as Walter Harrison, deputy Labour whip) and Charles Edwards (as Jack Weatherill, deputy Tory whip) make for a formidable pair: while they obviously come from different worlds, there is a natural synergy between them. Vincent Franklin shines as the chief Labour whip who struggles with his choices, and Lauren O’ Neil effortlessly makes the transition from junior – and only woman – whip to the strongest member of the team. Special mention to Howard Ward, who had to step in as an understudy as Phil Daniels was indisposed: script in hand and no rehearsal, he did a great job. Lovely touch in the curtain call when he was singled out for applause by his fellow actors and the audience responded enthusiastically.
One final mention, this time for the set, designed by Rae Smith: its most obvious feature is the recreation of the House of Commons’ debating chamber across the whole space, including the seating for the audience. But I loved most the far side of the Cottesloe made to look like the inside of the Big Ben: nothing adds scale like feeling the shadow of Big Ben on your skin. And nothing adds perspective – and a touch of irreverence – like having a live rock band playing in that shadow.
P.S. At the back of watching the play, it was very interesting to research the events behind the story: it came as a genuine surprise that the offer Jack Weatherill made in one of the final scenes was true to life and actually happened. The course of history and all that.
See what revstan has to say about This House.
Update: the press night of This House has been postponed indefinitely due to Phil Daniels’ absence.