This is a play about how history repeats itself: regardless of the political situation, this play will always be relevant. Coalition or majority, loss or win, EU or Brexit: there will be a line that rings true. I saw it on the day Tristram Hunt resigned. The party whips preventing Walsall North (characters are referred to by the names of their constituencies) from resigning echoed the rumours of Hunt resigning as a sign of the Labour party leadership losing control.
It’s a play of dichotomies, reflected in the set, the mirror of the House of Commons (two green benches, facing each other). ‘That’s our system. That’s this building. Two sides of the house, two sides of the argument, facing off against each other’. Tory or Labour, Europe: in or out, retaining the fustian nature of UK parliament over a new model, young vs old, men and women. These are the issues that are always relevant in politics. However, the play doesn’t provide any respite for people not interested in politics, who don’t think it matters. In fairness, they probably wouldn’t come and see this play anyway, but what This House fails to do is to justify the way the audience’s seating wraps around the set, making the audience the constituents who watch over parliament. To be clear: I believe politics does have a relevance to people’s lives, but I view voting and following political news as a hobby, not a duty. The closest James Graham gets to addressing the viewpoint of those who aren’t interested in politics is by showing parliament as fustian but functional. Maybe that’s just the way the House operates, only revolving around those who care about politics, unable to address those who aren’t interested.
Graham presents politics as coincidence. Thatcher only wins Tory party leadership on a protest vote ‘Seems everyone thought everyone else would vote for Ted, so no harm in registering a little protest. Funny how things work out, eh’. This is how political change happens. History rests on tiny chances: missed flights, people dying at the wrong moment. Some of the characters in the play seem to recognise this: the Speaker forced to decide whether the majority of Harrison’s body making it into the committee room qualifies a vote knows that history relies on his decision (‘I look forward to seeing that one in the history books’). Others don’t. The idealist Taylor, the only female main character, views her fellow female MP (Welwyn and Hatfield) as a ground-breaker for breastfeeding in the Houses of Parliament. The Welwyn and Hatfield replies: ‘I don’t want a plaque, I don’t want anything I’m not…I’m not a flippin’ martyr, I’m not flying any flags’. She recognises that it’s just coincidence that she’s the first woman to breastfeed in parliament. It would have been someone else if not her. Besides, she doesn’t even want to be here, but it’s all hands on deck with a non-existent majority. This brings me to the play’s gender problem. When the majority of the real people represented in the play are white males, how do you achieve a 50/50 gender split and a diverse cast? The answer in this production is that you don’t, and that’s a shame. Given that the play doesn’t show the leaders, the big names, the ones whose appearances people remember, so many more roles could easily go to women. I don’t buy the line that only one female main character shows how few female MPs there were at the time. The fact that almost all the MPs in the play look like Mark Gatiss shows just how bad the problem is.
The inching round of naming the actual leaders of political parties is reminiscent of the first couple of series of The Thick Of It. The party leaders never appear onstage – they’re lurking background presences. Characters talk about them, or talk to them on the phone, but they aren’t what this play is about. The way whips and the speaker refer to MPs by their constituency name adds a layer of ambiguity to every character. We know the place-name, not the name. When a place name with the pronoun ‘she’ attached is mentioned, the audience’s attention is focussed. I like to think that I have average knowledge of the political heavyweights of the 20th century: Churchill, Attlee, Macmillan, Thatcher, Blair (in roughly that order). All I know in my hearsay is that Thatcher comes at the end of the seventies. The ‘she’ is what we’re waiting for throughout this indistinct Labour minority government, unable to press any big issues with such a tiny minority. The audience’s knowledge of her hangs over the entire play. When the constituency Finchley is mentioned as a ‘she’, half of the audience wonder if this could be Thatcher while the other (older) half lean over and whisper, as audibly as they can, ‘MARGARET THATCHER WAS MP FOR FINCHLEY’. Her name signifies not just a person or a government, but a new brand of politics. Playing her ‘Where there is discord…’ speech at the end of the play is an unsurprising choice: it has to happen. We have to see her ascend to power because otherwise we’re just left with the image of Big Ben, ‘the most famous face in the world’, and the knowledge that one system of politics, an attempt at a minority government, has failed. Regardless of individual members of the audience’s feelings about Thatcher, hearing her famous Downing Street speech (that even I’ve heard of) signals a slow movement towards the politics of the present.
FAVOURITE LINE: ‘Which war, what do you mean which war? The war.’ ‘Yes, I know, sorry, I just, I wondered, you know…First, Second, Korean, Suez-’ ‘Please do not list them as though they were flavours of ice cream. [Pause] Which war, it was the war…’