Reviewed by James Karas
This House is a riveting political extravaganza that was shown in movie theaters directly from the Olivier stage of the National Theatre, London. It is about the backroom political warfare of the Conservative and Labour Parties of Great Britain between 1974 and 1979 when Labour fought to survive as a minority government.
The large stage of the Olivier is turned into the House of Commons at Westminster with people from the audience seated on each side of the stage as if they were Members of Parliament. Most of the action however takes place in offices, corridors, the inside of Big Ben and the basement.
Playwright James Graham is not interested in the Prime Ministers or the Leaders of the Opposition Parties of the day. Harold Wilson and later James Callaghan were Prime Ministers during the period and Margaret Thatcher became Conservative Party leader but none of them is mentioned directly.
Graham focuses on the Labour and Conservative “whips”, the party disciplinarians who make sure that their members are in the house when necessary and maintain party loyalty. In a minority government, they woo members of other parties with persuasion, promises, coaxing and whatever other means they can conceive and perpetrate in support of purely political ambitions.
The play moves with ferocious speed at times, has some Wildean wit, considerable drama and comedy, and a satisfactory ending. The bickering, backstabbing and enormous efforts by the Parties to outwit each other, with Labour desperately trying to stay in power and the Conservatives just as desperately trying to defeat them can be quite depressing. Labour realizes that is unable to pass any legislation and the country is paralyzed. What is their achievement? Keeping the Conservatives out is the answer.
There is treachery, stupidity, selfishness, arrogance and complete disregard of the national interest. However, there is also some humanity and Graham does find an act of principled nobility at the end of the play.
The action shifts from the House, to offices, to other locations with lightning rapidity and director Jeremy Herrin reaches frenetic speeds but also slows down for mellow moments.
The action is propelled by the eight whips (five for Labour and three for the Conservatives) who pursue their own members and MPs from the marginal parties. Vincent Franklin is in overdrive as the Labour whip Michael Cocks with Phil Daniels as the less frenetic whip Bob Mellish . Lauren O’Neil as the new and attractive Labour whip who shows class and sense and humanity.
Julian Wadham, Charles Edwards and Ed Hughes as the Conservative whips, represent men from a different class who are no less conniving than their Labour counterparts. The whole play was acted superbly.
My only complaint is that the play is relentlessly political and has a constant theme of getting one vote more than the other side. There is large number of MPs introduced by the name of their riding and that causes some confusion in people who do not know the political map of Great Britain.
There is a somewhat limited “human side” with the dying MP who is brought in to vote, the nursing mother and the Scottish, Irish and Welsh members who are colourful and make democracy look bad. Mind you, almost all of them make democracy look bad.
The audience in the movie house did not get the full effect of the efficient movement from one venue to the other on the stage. At the back of the stage was the interior of Big Ben but the close-ups made us lose the full effect of that and of the House of Commons.
Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979 and she took over with an iron grip setting aside all the unseemly squabbles. She has left a controversial legacy with many people refusing to forgive her for some of her policies. At the end of this play, her election comes as a relief._____
This House by James Graham was shown at the AMC Yonge and Dundas Theatre, 10 Dundas St. East, Toronto Ontario and other theatres on May 16, 2013. For more information visit http://www.cineplex.com/events/