If you want proof that Irn Bru isn’t the only thing they can produce in Mansfield these days, a trip to the Theatre Royal is worth a go to see our North Notts cousin James Graham’s This House as it tours ‘til Saturday.
Chronicling the tempestuous years of Labour government from 1974 to ’79, we get a behind the green leather benches look at the Whips’ offices of both Labour and the Conservatives trying to hold it all together. As the gears of Big Ben’s air brake speed regulator grind to a halt so too does the functioning of government with a stalemate of hung parliaments and minority governments relying on the “odds and sods” of Liberals and nationalists.
The action of the play focusses keenly onto the machinations of these Whips on both sides as every trick in the book is used to secure the votes necessary. Beyond this parliamentary protocol, gentlemen’s agreements and deals above principle, there is a heart to the story in James Gaddas’ standout performance as Deputy Chief Whip Walter Harrison who, in the best Ibsen-esque tradition, lets his humanity get the better of him touchingly in the play’s final act.
There’s a deftness in the creating of these opposing sides with the Labour whips talking a bit of blue, continually apologising their newest and only female member Ann Taylor, played with a firmness to stand-up to the boy’s club by Natalie Grady, and the Tories toffing and quaffing their tankards of brandy; their opposite numbers referring to them as the “aristo-twats”. Graham’s script certainly does both types of Woodhouse: Annesley and PG. Matthew Pidgeon as Tory Deputy Whip Jack Weatherill stands out in the blue corner along with an excellent, dextrous multi-rolling cast leaping from mechanics to Members to Westminster officials.
Placing members of the audience on stage, here on the parliamentary benches, and interval bars popping up where moments ago the play had been carrying on are in vogue currently and there is one in evidence here - though sadly the on-stage Strangers’ isn’t exempt of VAT. The band, playing classic hits of the ’70s from the Public Gallery, provide a bit of respite from the relentless politicking, a nice Sid Vicious joke and the usual spine-tingle whenever some plays Bowie’s Five Years live.
The audience’s awareness of the political backstory, told well in a necessarily exposition heavy first half, adds to the drama as we careen through a turbulent few years in Parliament. The feeling in the room nicely sharpens when the mention of replacing Ted Heath with the member for Finchley is floated and, as the show closes, her words ringing out from the steps of Downing Street in May 1979, there’s the knowledge that nothing will be the same again.
That said, having originally been written back in 2012, the play’s relevance since this first outing has grown and grown. Whilst a referendum on Scottish independence was on the cards then, the parallels between EU membership votes, left-wing infiltration of local Labour parties (but for Militant read Momentum) and even as recently as last week the idea of a new centre party, This House feels bang up to date. We’ve not yet regressed back to electricity shortages and the Three-Day Week but after the comparisons you can draw after watching Jeremy Herrin and Jonathan O’Boyle’s slick production you could be forgiven for thinking that bin strikes are just around the corner.
This House plays at Nottingham's Theatre Royal until Saturday 14 April 2018.