Politics and Theatre Collide in Smash-Hit Drama This House

  • Arts reporter Amy Stutz visits the rehearsals for This House ahead of its arrival at The Lowry in Salford

Are we in the midst of a political revolution? Can the country stay united? These are the questions that are being asked in our current political landscape, but these are the questions that have been asked for years. James Graham’s play This House is taking us back to an era of chaos, the 1974 hung parliament when the corridors of Westminster were bursting with the sound of infighting and backbiting as the government hung by a thread.

Five years after This House opened at the National Theatre, James Graham’s critically acclaimed play has gone from success to success. Echoing the sounds of Westminster during a time of high-stakes, it’s a production that captures the tension and daily machinations of politics from 1974-79 when Labour held power as a minority government, or with a fragile majority, while the Labour whips office did everything they could to keep their side in power.

After opening in the National Theatre’s Cottesloe theatre (now Dorfman) it transferred to their main Olivier stage before heading to Chichester and then London’s West End. “I thought it would be a really niche play for a niche audience but it really took off,” writer James Graham said. As a young writer, not alive during the time, his idea sparked many years ago. “I thought about it but then assumed someone had probably already written it, but then in 2010 when there was the first hung parliament since 1974/1979, it just made sense for me to go back and ask those questions. One of the advantages of doing a play set in the recent past is that it asks questions about the present.” he added.

Hearing snippets of stories about this particular parliament that he didn’t live through, and finding out it was the most dramatic, insane, farcical event where people were literally dying and losing their life as votes were on a knife-edge, James couldn’t think of anything more theatrical. “I learnt a lot about how these were real people, not just these shadowing suited figures that you see on TV now and again,” he said. “But it humanises them, especially since 17 of them died during the course of this parliament due to the stress and strain of keeping it all together.”

Focusing on the Labour and Tory whips’ offices, we are introduced to the MPs of the time and are quickly taken through the story of the hung parliament. Director Jeremy Hidden explained how despite it being a play about politics, it is so much more than that. “It is a play about what happened in 1974 to 1979 and how a minority government can survive. It isn’t really a play about ideology, it is a play about procedure, dignity, honour, our whole country, our system and all of those contradictions. Some of those contradictions are worrying, some amusing and many inspiring” Jeremy expressed. “At the heart of it is a human drama, and that is why it has lasted and we are still so keen to work on it as it accommodates a view of humanity that is really benign.”

During James’ research, he explained his struggle to actually get into parliament and start talking to people. “We are all familiar with the exterior of Westminster, and it feels so closed, opaque and inaccessible,” he said. “We get the footage of the Prime Minister’s question time but throughout my research, I realised how little I knew about the process and the systems.” Stressing how some of the customs and rituals still done in parliament today are 200 – 300 years old and they govern our democracy today. “The government all work together in the Westminster building and I wanted to understand that and make it into a play that felt both light on its feet and entirely accessible,” he added.

Taking it on a UK tour for the first time is exciting for writer James as it is bringing it to a totally different audience. “It has long been an ambition of mine to take this play to all the places named in it,” he said. “It has always felt like a national play despite being set in the corridors of Westminster, because it feels like a cross-section of regions, people and class who converge in this building once a week.”

Its success is undeniable, and in a political climate like today with everything from Brexit to Trump, it’s hard not to have an interest and intrigue in politics. However, the question rises whether or not a play set in our political past will have relevance to a younger modern-day audience. With youngsters jumping on the political bandwagon due to politicians like Jeremy Corbyn, eager to engage the young voice, there is no doubt this production will resonate. Tony Turner, who plays Labour party politician Michael Cocks in the production, stressed the relevance: “I think it’s perfect for today because it is slick, funny and incredibly well-crafted so it doesn’t wag fingers at people or make people feel inadequate because they’re not political experts.”

Writer James explains that they made the decision not to reference the members of parliament such as Alan Clark or Michael Heseltine because they didn’t want say a 17-year-old in the audience to feel excluded by the titter of laughter that might go through an older audience. “All the information that you’d need is in the play, and it’s really important that it is absolutely inclusive,” he said. “But also it is at a level of detail and finesses that if you know everything about that time period, you’re not going to be disappointed.”

Ultimately it is a piece of drama about relationships, and a huge part of that is the treatment of female MP’s during that time. With current news arising of MP’s being trained in the way they treat women in parliament due to sexual assault allegations, it’s still an issue today. Director Jeremy Hidden explains how there are three women in their acting company, and when former British politician from 1983-1997 Edwina Currie came to see the show earlier in its development, she said there were ‘far too many’ women in it. That contradicted her sense of being a woman in parliament, and the play tackles that feeling of isolation that women had through the narrative of Ann Taylor.

“We had Ann Taylor come in right from the very beginning of rehearsals to speak to us,” Tony said. “Looking at the numbers of women in parliament, you realise how very few of them there were, it is a real old boys club. In fact, we went for a tour of the House of Commons when we first did the show at the National and there were a couple of members of the company that were old public school boys. They said they breathed in the air and thought ‘school’, as it smelt like their old public boys school. It must have been incredibly tough for those few women, as it probably still is.”

James added how he was adamant it was one of the central storylines because of how much it will still resonate with today. “Gender representation in parliament pinged out to me because this was 40 years ago and we are still wrestling with that idea of gender representation today, particularly with it being the anniversary of the suffragettes.”

This House encapsulates the climatic period in government through high-drama and comedy. It moves swiftly with pace through the dramatic highs and lows of these politicians’ lives as it covers so much ground articulating the stresses and strains of these two opposing sides coming together, in a production about our political past that still rings true today.