Whatever dark hints 2016 may have provided to the contrary, conventional wisdom isn’t always wrong. Having seen James Graham’s This House at the Garrick Theatre last night, I can confirm what more or less every professional or casual critic, UK politics geek, old Labour hack, veteran theatre-goer, friend or sundry acquaintance will already have told you, which is that This House is a hugely compelling, satisfying play, and that James Graham’s is a voice to be welcomed with unalloyed enthusiasm.
This is all the more remarkable when one considers the play’s apparent modesty of aspiration. This House takes place not on the floor of the House of Commons, that great expansive theatre of parliamentary democracy with its larger-than-life characters and set-piece battles, but rather in what it describes as the ‘engine room’ of the House of Commons — the offices of the government and opposition whips, hidden down in the badly-maintained bowels of the building, wherein much of the real business of politics is carried out by figures who, at least as far as the general public is concerned, are all but nameless and faceless. Its timespan stretches from the February 1974 general election to the 1979 vote of no confidence that brought down Jim Callaghan and ushered in the age of Margaret Thatcher. During these not-quite-five years, the Labour Party struggled to govern with an unfeasibly small, fragile, continually embattled majority. How the Labour whips made this happen — and at what cost — is the central focus of This House.
Modesty? Imagine, perhaps, trying to sell to a West End Theatre the idea that procedural wrangles mostly carried out by men in suits in sparsely-furnished basement rooms during the late 1970s are actually really, really interesting. Or to put it another way, think of what might have happened if Shakespeare, having decided for whatever reason to cut from Henry V not only the king himself but also all the higher nobility, made the whole play centre on Pistol, the captains and the Boy, always speaking in prose, with the battles invariably taking place off-stage, hence seen only through their impact on logistics.
This, more or less, is the challenge that Graham has set himself. That he succeeds so brilliantly is surprising enough that, two day later, I can’t entirely resist the temptation to try to pick apart his achievement, and see how he managed to do it. Why does everyone, correctly, love This House so much?
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this slyly surprising play reposes in its manifest, unabashed and deeply unfashionable lack of cynicism.
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