James Graham Celebrates House of Commons’ Shenanigans
by Barry David Horwitz
In 1974, Liberals were running the governments of the US and the UK. They tried very hard to put in some liberal programs, but they were constantly stymied by the onrushing forces of Republicans and Conservatives in both countries. The Labour Party’s three vote majority in Britain’s House of Commons was teetering on the abyss, every day.
In “This House,” James Graham shows the Labor MPs expressing empathy for their working class voters. But the Conservatives come across as posh, unfeeling, and snobby—in their beautiful Saville Row suits and haughty Oxbridge accents.
In “This House,” the MPs attack each other with wit, passion, and dueling data, until they actually start to fight on the floor of the House of Commons. One Honorable Member grabs the Speaker’s ceremonial Mace, and brandishes it overhead, comically. Up above, under Big Ben, a 70s rock band accompanies carefully choreographed scenes of cavorting MPs.
Brilliantly, Graham takes us to the heart of Westminster Palace, where we see the inside workings of the Majority and Minority Leaders, called Whips. They skirmish, deploying their musical regional and class accents to gain advantage. Only one vote keeps Labour in power. And the bright light up the steps through the audience beckons some of the over 500 members to their final roll calls over five years.
The gorgeous browns and greens of the House, the ancient benches, and the great overhead backwards view of a broken Big Ben offer a vast canvas for public debates and secret meetings. We actually inhabit the basement and the attic of Westminster Palace, seeing how The House works. It’s a satirical spectacle, like Parliament itself–a carousel of revolving MPs, each announced by district: “The Member from Coventry North, the Member from Waxhall East”–each with their own voters to please and protect.
Precise and thrilling British actors stream into the secretive party chambers. In the Labor room, Phil Daniels, Reece Dinsdale, Vincent Franklin, and Lauren O’Neil play earthy, Northern accented Labour Members—with enthusiasm and hopefulness. There’s nobility in their struggle, fun in the confrontations, and a desire to improve people’s lives.
On the Tory side, Julian Wadham, Charles Edwards, and Ed Hughes deliver elegant, posh versions of believably cold-hearted Conservatives. Director Jeremy Herrin delivers thrilling ensemble work, adding a few hilarious songs and dances, too.
For nearly five years, the Labour Party in Parliament eeks out a one or two vote lead over the Tories, making it a “hung” Parliament. Labour Whips busily woo the “odds and sods”—Welsh, Irish, Scottish Members to hold onto a majority. But the process obscures the will of voters.
With their paper-thin advantage, Labour engages in an enlightening circus of trading and tricks. Some in secret, under Big Ben, while Members assert themselves, get ill, die, and just fake it.
The shabby Labour Party barely seems a government, but rather a ragtag bunch who have stumbled into restricted power. The Labor Party, like Nancy Pelosi’s House, too, passes urgent measures. But the Tories obstruct every step.
When you watch this comedy on line for free, remember it’s Our House that’s burning, NOW. The National Theatre gives us a spectacular and urgent reminder about how democracy can be undermined—it’s a great show for us, today!
“This House” by James Graham, directed by Jeremy Herrin, streaming at National Theatre at Home, to June 4, 2020.
Cast: Phil Daniels, Reece Dinsdale, Vincent Franklin, Lauren O’Neil, Julian Wadham, Charles Edwards, Ed Hughes.
The Members Chorus: Gunnar Cauthery, Christopher Godwin, Andrew Havill, Helena Lymbery, Matthew Pidgeon, Giles Taylor, Tony Turner, Rupert Vansittart.