Monday, 19 March 2018

REVIEW: This House at the Cambridge Arts

James Graham has established himself as one of the countries leading playwrights in a very short space of time. Last year his plays Labour of Love and Ink ran side by side in theatres on St Martin's Lane and his latest play Quiz, about the coughing major on "Who wants to be a millionaire" opens soon in the West End. This House was his first West End hit and is now on tour around the country. All four plays deal with events in recent British history but are presented with great wit and humour and make excellent entertainment.

This House deals with an extraordinary period of British parliamentary history as a minority Labour Party hung onto power for as long as they could to keep the Tories out and saw the unusual situation with all three parties changing their leaders. In doing so he slickly explains parliamentary process such as pairing , divisions, usual channels and the election of a new speaker which are a central part of the drama. It runs for just under three hours and just like the Labour Party at the time feels like it hangs on for too long in the second half. The action takes place mainly in the Government and opposition whips office and around the Houses of Parliament and the MPs are referred to by their constituency names rather than their surnames. Indeed one of the best jokes of the production comes when the new elected MP for a constituency famous for its sewing needles complains "you can't find the haystack in Redditch for all the needles"! The action is backed by a small rock/punk band playing music of the period including the 1971 David Bowie hit Five Years, here repurposed to sum up Labour ambition to stay in government for a full term.

The large ensemble cast is excellent with particularly strong performances from the leading whips of each party. In the first act Martin Marquez is very good as Labour chief whip desperately pouring over the blackboard to work out how to gets business voted through but forced out when he breaks the etiquette and favours the wrong leadership candidate. He is supported by Natalie Grady as newcomer Ann Taylor, learning the whipping rules and growing in influence as women start to break down the traditions of parliament. In the opposing corner are William Chubb and Matthew Pidgeon as the Tory chief whip and his deputy, both drawing out the class war that dominated the seventies. In their scenes they not only show what went on in the time but clearly illustrate how far Parliament and society has moved on over the forty years since.

Amongst the members chorus there are good performances from Orlando Wells as the member for Walsall North and in Act 2 the speaker; Harry Kershaw has great fun as the members for Chelmsford and Henley, and from Louise Ludgate as the formidable rebel member for Coventry South West. For those of us old enough to remember the events, Graham cleverly integrates some of the headline grabbing antics of these MP's to great comic effect.

Directors Jeremy Herrin and Jonathan O'Boyle have done an excellent job with
this large touring cast in creating the groupings, movement and staging to reflect the complicated political dances the whips orchestrate in pairing, voting and managing their members lives using not just the stage, but also the balcony above and the auditorium itself. By including seats on the stage for the public to act as back benchers, the production also offers a unique perspective for those brave enough and enhances the look of the house from the auditorium. Slick stage management and lighting moves us swiftly from the whips offices, to the bar, to the commons, to the archive vaults, inside the clock tower and the corridors of power. 

First staged in 2012, the events of a hung parliament in the seventies are made all the more interesting by the challenges the current government is battling with without a majority and the realisation of how much energy and effort is required to just stay in power rather than getting on with actually managing the country finances. This play should be required study for all teenagers and this touring production a must for them to see.

Review by Nick Wayne

Rating: ★★★★

Seat: on stage, stage right | Price of Ticket: £39
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