This House

Taking place over the five years in the seventies that turned out to be the last Labour Government for nearly 20 years and that led to the Thatcher era, the politics being managed in This House will resonate more for those with a knowledge of not too distant political history. But aside from some small comic cameos by the key players of the time (all referred to by their constituency, so making for a bit of a fun interval guessing game), this is an intriguing look at the orchestrated machinations and traditions that are often the real power behind the power – like an intricate waltz that needs to be danced in order for decisions and headlines to be made. And much like Ed Balls dancing on Strictly recently, it's interesting to watch, funny and possibly revelatory ­– if lacking depth to really stick with you for long afterwards.

Interesting, funny and has a sharpness to it, but like many a politician, a good fascia does not necessarily make for something that has as much substance as it may think it has.

Set mainly in the bowels of the Commons – the offices of the Chief Whip and their counterparts; the only real difference being the 'better chairs and art' – this is a world where individual votes count more than the policies behind them and so it's all about beating the others no matter what the cost. During many votes, the "odds and sods" (those non Tory or Labour MPs who can sway a vote) are promised anything from a vote on Scottish devolution to new office carpet to 'win' for one of the main sides in the House. MPs are dragged into vote at any cost (on their deathbed, whilst breastfeeding and on a RAF helicopter) and 'gentlemen's agreements' aren't mandated but accepted parts of the gameplay. Each 'game' is won or lost on victory for votes – with little nod to what the votes are actually for.

The nearly three hours runs at such a pace, it's fun to watch as power shifts from side to side and measures get ever more desperate to achieve that all important victory. Much like the bravado of schoolboys in the playground. The majority of the large cast play multiple real Ministers of the time – introduced at every entrance by their constituency by the Speaker of the House – showing all the many individual minor ambitions that need to be fulfilled in order for any major decisions to be made.

It really is like watching a large orchestra being pulled together but at such speed and with such short scenes that you care about the actions not the people. Add to that, the broad brushes of class (no doubt real of the time) – Left = working class, sweary, northern (mainly) blokes, Right = over-privileged "aristo-twats", Irish independents = alcoholics with questionable accents – and you're really seeing the instruments here, rather than the players themselves.

Considering we are peering into such a closed world of accepted traditions and rules, it is somewhat surprising that Rae Smith's design opens the set to make the audience a key part of the staging. Some are invited to sit on all sides of the stage like the back benchers, the stalls are the corridors of power and the onstage bar opens at the interval where we are invited to have drinks and chat with the cast (assumedly in character still but I missed the opportunity to find out). It's a very interesting and inclusive conceit – though I'm not sure what it really adds. Are we all a part of the problem? Are we that close to playing the same game? For what seems like we are spying on a secret men's club, I don't really see the purpose – other than being interesting staging (but for its own sake?).

The performances are strong and fun across the board – each bringing their characters' recognisable traits to life with a fun brusqueness; whether an affected lisp, a deep ridden mistrust of the opposite class, a rebellious 'down to earth' fighting spirit, a woman who is as tough as the men around her. But the strength they have is in making their characters easy to watch and in maintaining the pace – the script doesn't delve any further. They may be hard to fault but they're also hard to standout or remember.

Add the occasional rock song and underscore from the live band and the overshadowing Big Ben clock face upstage (the fault occurring in this icon of tradition not a difficult metaphor to grasp) and it's undoubtedly easy and enjoyable to watch. We may have seen 'behind the scenes of politics' dramas before (The West Wing, House of Cards as a starting point) but it's still interesting, funny and has a sharpness to it. But like many a politician, a good fascia does not necessarily make for something that has as much substance as it may think it has. 

Reviews by Simon Ximenez


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The Blurb

'An intoxicating political thrill ride'
Time Out
Following two sell-out seasons at the National Theatre and an upcoming run at Chichester Festival Theatre, James Graham's critically acclaimed political drama This House transfers to the Garrick Theatre this November.

1974. The UK faces economic crisis and a hung parliament. In a culture hostile to cooperation, it's a period when votes in the House of Commons are won or lost by one, when there are fist fights in the bars and when sick MPs are carried through the lobby to register their vote. It's a time when a staggering number of politicians die, and the building creaks under idiosyncrasies and arcane traditions.

Set in the engine rooms of Westminster, James Graham's This House strips politics down to the practical realities of those behind the scenes: the whips who roll up their sleeves and on occasion bend the rules to shepherd and coerce a diverse chorus of MPs within the Mother of all Parliaments.

Premiered at the National Theatre in 2012, This House is written by James Graham (The Vote, Privacy) and directed by Headlong Artistic Director Jeremy Herrin (People, Places and Things, Wolf Hall).

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