UPDATE – REVIVAL AT THE GARRICK THEATRE LONDON Opening 19 November 2016: http://www.garricktheatre.org/this-house/
I’m still a novice when it comes to live screenings of theatre events. But with the extortionate rail prices to London now being what they are, I am beginning to discover the benefits and pleasures of the screenings from the capital’s National Theatre, performances that can now be viewed at Lancaster’s local repertory theatre, The Dukes, at relatively little expense. Last week The Dukes screened the final performance of James Graham’s hugely successful This House from the National’s Olivier stage. Introducing the play prior to the screening, Graham described it as ‘political drama’; more apt, I would say, to describe it as a play about politics. What This House portrays are the years of British politics from 1974 to 1979 when Labour was in government but with a hung parliament, leaving ministers struggling to govern without an overall majority. Going behind the political scenes to depict the shenanigans occurring in the offices of the Labour and Tory Whips, what Graham ‘whips up’ is a series of escalating mini-dramas as Labour survive episode after episode of potential defeats, up until their final ousting in 1979. And yes the drama is always shadowed by the Iron Lady in waiting, the outcome foreseen and, depending on your political viewpoint, heralding salvation or abject disaster (no prizes for guessing which side of the house the drama queens are on).
The idea of a screening might suggest an erosion of the much vaunted ‘liveness’ of the theatrical event with the cinematic mediation perceived as an impediment to an audience’s affective, spectatorial engagement. That was not, I have to say, my experience of viewing This House: the packed house was palpably engaged throughout – lots of laughter, occasional whoops and murmured moans. This was due in no small measure to the way in which the performance offered a significant point of identification for the audience demographic at the Dukes – a majority of the spectators seemingly were of an age to have lived through the seventies. This became apparent at the very outset of the event; when Graham described himself as a playwright too young to have experienced the seventies the audience howled with a sense of knowing, ‘but-we-were-there’ laughter. Moreover, the play’s representation of the houses of parliament divided between ‘us and them’, Labour and Tory, marked the geographical divide of North and South, and this also factored into the audience’s regional, ‘Up North’ viewing relations.
Indeed, the North got particular attention in the interval as the National broadcast a live interview with Ann Taylor, Baroness of Bolton, one of several politicians to have helped Graham with his research for the play. Taylor was elected as a Labour MP for Bolton West in 1974, and in the play her character is used primarily to register the sexist, predominantly boys-only club of Westminster. The numerous MPs played by the cast were not introduced by name, however, rather each was announced by the constituency they served, leaving the audience the pleasurable puzzle of recollecting and piecing together their own ‘who’s who’ of political figures.
Rapidly shifting scenes set within the offices of the Whips, shadowed by the face of Big Ben and encircled by an audience occupying the benches of the House of Commons, called for high energy, tight choreography and versatility on the part of the performers. As an ensemble piece this was a veritable tour de force, with excellent acting from the multi-role playing cast, even if a tendency to stereotype by class and geography (posh Tory boys in hand-made suits versus working-class Labour lads in their off-the-peg, man-made fibre outfits) grated at times. (The highly stereotyped, ‘odds and sods’, from Scotland and Northern Ireland, whose support was keenly canvassed from both main parties in the political power games, often left a lot to be desired.) A ‘live’ band punctuated the ensemble with the musicians offering their tribute to the seventies. There was a welcome, from my point of view, reprise of Bowie tracks; anthems to the punk movement served to swell the chaos that escalates as the life or death of the Labour government hangs in the balance – quite literally as the death of a single MP can make all the difference to winning a vote in the commons and keeping a vote of no confidence at bay.
Less anarchic than punk in its treatment of the political scene, Graham’s play eschews empathy for one political party over the other, although the Whips in the Labour camp arguably draw more of the dramatic interest and tension given the focus on their struggle to survive. And in the final moments the audience are left with the idea that the decision on the part of Labour not to call on one of their seriously ill number, ‘Doc’ Broughton, to stave off a vote of no confidence is what allowed Thatcher to take centre political stage.
To borrow from Bowie’s lyrics, ‘five years, what a surprise’, is how the Labour Whips are left feeling after surviving so long. To which I might add, post-1979 meant ‘we had [more than] five years left to cry in’.