This House review at Garrick Theatre, London – ‘pertinent and witty’
What could be more apt during the panto season in this politically farcical year than a play about the House of Commons?
James Graham's This House, a hit in the National's Cottesloe in 2012, had a return sell-out run in the Olivier and now comes in from Chichester, masterfully directed and designed by the same team of Jeremy Herrin and Rae Smith.
Graham chronicles the absurd lengths to which the two main parties went to grab or hold on to power in the years of minority Labour Government between 1974 and 1979. Crucial was pairing, the gentleman's agreement by which sick or absent members on one side were matched in the voting lobbies by an opposing member staying away. When the system breaks down, posh Tories and earthy Socialists become tribal players in a (mainly) boys' game.
Adapted for a proscenium arch, with audience members on stage as backbenchers, the confrontational intensity of the Cottesloe's traverse set is maintained as most of the action takes place in the whips' offices. As the Deputy Tory Whip Nathaniel Parker has quiet authority if not the disarming public school charm of Charles Edwards in the role. Steffan Rhodri now thoughtfully inhabits the generally decent Labour Deputy Whip Walter Harrison and Kevin Doyle his anxious boss. Sarah Woodward's comic timing is a terrific addition to uncontrollable Labour rebel Audrey Wise, and Malcolm Sinclair brings more comedy as a smell-under-his-nose Tory whip. Among the original cast Phil Daniels' crusty Cockney Bob Mellish and Lauren O'Neil as lone female whip, Ann Taylor, are still strong, while Christopher Godwin is especially adept at quick changes from dying Labour MP to wild-haired Scot Nat.
Perhaps there is a greater tendency to caricature than there was, but Graham's wit and the company's affection for the sometimes ludicrous traditions of our democratic system shine through.