‘This House’ at The National Theatre

A sell-out last year in the Cottesloe, This House, has just opened in the vastly bigger space of the Olivier.  Set entirely within the back rooms of the Palace of Westminster, it tells the story of the UK government between 1974, when Edward Heath lost the general election, and 1979, when Margaret Thatcher came to power.

I was a teenager during that period, so have a memory of a time of grim industrial upheaval involving power cuts, streets full of rubbish and endless footage on the news of trade union leaders shouting through megaphones at mass meetings of striking workers.  There also seemed to be more frequent elections than seemed entirely right.  When Heath called the election in 1974, he asked the question, ‘Who governs Britain?’, and the electorate answered ‘Dunno, but not you.’  No party had an overall majority, so although Labour was in government, it had to ally itself with the smaller parties (the ‘odds and sods’) in order to get their legislation through the House.

Hoping for a more substantial majority Harold Wilson called another election within the same year, in which he won one, but only by three seats.  This put massive pressure on each MP to attend every vote, involving the Whips (the Parties enforcement teams) in persuasion, bullying,  bribery and blackmail, and in the wheeling in of ill MPs on their hospital beds.  When a dispute arose about an apparent  welching on a ‘pairing’ deal (the practice by which one party agrees that a member won’t vote if a member of the other party is unavoidably away from the House), the Opposition refused to continue the practice, leading to even greater pressure on everyone.  The fact that Labour members seemed to keep on dying made the maintenance of a majority even more difficult.

Set on a stage done out to look like the inside of the House of Commons, with some members of the audience on benches, the action of the play is entirely focussed on the dark arts of politics, in small smoke filled rooms, late at night, by tired, angry people.  There are moments of dark humour, music and dancing, the telling of famous incidents from the time, like Heseltine waving the Mace around, and Stonehouse faking his own death, but mostly it’s about the Whips reckoning the number of votes on which they can count, and then strategising  about how to get people to vote the ‘right’ way.

There’s a certain amount of exposition in the early part of the play about how Parliament works, but this is probably necessary to make sure that everyone understands the significance of what is unfolding in the drama.  And it might be that the characters are a little stereotyped, ‘working class’ and sweary on one side, and toffy-nosed and too well dressed on the other, but they are meant to be ‘representative’ so it didn’t detract from my enjoyment.

I found it entirely gripping, and was amazed at the end, to see how much time had elapsed and how late it was.  It’s a historic tale, but it’s all too easy to see the parallels in the wheeling and dealing that is necessary to keep the current Coalition Government in power.

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