Last week myself and a very good friend were lucky enough to view the National Theatre’s national cinema screening This House; a play about political machinations set in the Government and Opposition Whip’s offices during the 1974-1979 parliament. In a bid to bring a little bit of culture to Things Can Only Get Better, I offer a personal review.
Firstly the play is not, as expected, a strict history or biography. It could more accurately be described as a political period piece – capturing the mood and themes of the time though abstract characters, each representing either an office or a political party or faction. Historical events are alluded to in dialogue, or occasionally in brief clips of archive recordings. Historical politicians are off-stage and referred to only by their constituency (“Ebbw Vale”, “Cardiff”, “Finchley”), the exceptions being “Ted” and “Jim”. In this way the play differs from other political drama like West Wing or Lincoln, and yet is no less enjoyable for it.
On stage characters at first seem to be little more than two-dimensional caricatures. Labour politicians are foul-mouthed cockneys, brash northerners, insecure wonks and bolshy trots. Their Tory opposites are reserved Old Boys, closet homosexuals, vulgar nouveau riche and gruff old colonels. At first this looks worryingly clichéd but as the dramatic themes develop, so does the characterisation; the end-result being believable while still light-hearted. The Labour whips become softer and more easy to empathise with. The Tories you begin to admire just for their audacity and persistence.
The minor parties (the “Odds and Sods” in-play”) are given a rather raw-deal in their politicians being portrayed as stereotypes. This is less bad for the Liberals, the SNP, and Plaid Cymru who do at least act hard ball negotiators. The Irish Nationalists and Unionists are basically just heavy-drinking comic foils – being locked in cupboards with bottles of whiskey, evading their wives, and objecting to signing documents in green ink. If there are any “villains” it is the hard-left Labour MPs who are egotistical, selfish and self-righteous.
Overall the play’s atmosphere is a light-hearted and gentle one. If the subject matter was sex, not politics, it could easily have had the makings of a classic farce. As it was there was humour among the seriousness, and the cast were as believable in their jokes and “banter” as they were in their rants, panics, and stress-driven breakdowns. Political humour is an acquired taste even for political geeks like myself, and there are few genuinely new jokes in a predictably Punch-and-Judy arena like Parliament. And yet there were some proper “laugh-out-loud” lines I won’t spoil here. Curiously the theatre audience seemed to laugh a lot more than the cinema one, but that may be down to the different house atmospheres.
The moments of pathos were also perfectly pitched. One plot-line – concerning the faked suicide of a mentally troubled MP – captured perfectly both the absurdity and personal tragedy of the scenario. Over the course of the play/parliament, elderly and ill MPs gradually die off – especially when the suspension of “pairing” causes them to be increasing overworked. On-stage heart attacks and collapses are followed by the Members symbolically ascending the theatre stairs through the audience and towards a bright light. This touch above all contributes to a feel of desperate, ultimate futility. One final scenes is a genuine tear-jerker.
The occasion music-and-dance numbers were initially slightly cringe-worthy to me, as I wasn’t expecting anything “Musical”. On balance though they help to set the “feel” for the era, in musical style and through lyric-exposition. The set design is flawless. The challenge of fitting five years of political history into three hours means that the play does feel like a little bit of a “whistle-stop tour”. More drama could perhaps have been attained through focus on a briefer period – say the passage of a single key bill, or the build up from the end of the Lib-Lab pact in late 1978 to the confidence vote that lead to the 1979 election – although perhaps the dramatic tension will always be lessened by the fact that we all know how things end. Therefore maybe it makes sense to focus on the personal character arcs of key players in the “engine rooms” of Parliament.
On balance it was a highly enjoyable performance, with skilled camera-work ensuring that nothing was lost in the live broadcast. If the National Theatre have the good sense to schedule another national broadcast while the play still runs – and a packed cinema tells me that they should – then I would highly recommend this. It wouldn’t surprise me if the best thing to see in cinemas all year turns out to have been a play.