The best bits of The West Wing were always behind the scenes at the White House, with staff struggling to get things done and bouncing off each other in their day-to-day jobs. All that snappy dialogue, warmth and frustration or sneaking respect for opponents. Well, This House is basically The West Wing set in 1970s Parliament. With a load more drinking, smoking and swearing.
We open in February 1974, on the day Conservative Prime Minister Ted Heath calls a snap general election – only for Labour under Harold Wilson to form a minority government. The action moves through the October 1974 general election (result: tiny Labour majority) through to Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 victory. But we don’t see any of the major players. Writer James Graham has centred all the action on the Labour and Tory whips: the MPs whose job it is to make sure party members turn up to vote, and vote the way they’re supposed to. And when majorities are this thin, or don’t exist at all, every vote counts.
It’s gripping stuff. We wondered briefly how interesting the play would be for anyone not into politics, and while some knowledge of the period is handy (buy a programme, it’s very useful) it’s not essential. In fact, the quirk of referring to MPs as “the honourable member for [constituency]” is rather clever; it turns out “Walsall North” is far more memorable than “John Stonehouse“. In the end we decided that everyone loves a spot of office politics and the interplay between Tory and Labour whips is beautifully done. It helps that the cast is stuffed with excellent character actors, and fans of ‘Oh, It’s That Guy‘ will have a field day. Philip Glenister, Vincent Franklin (currently swearing at modern-day politicians in The Thick Of It), Richard Ridings and Lauren O’Neil capture Labour’s fragile position and rising panic, and even die-hard Socialists will soften at Charles Edwards’s upstanding deputy Tory whip.
You may be wondering about a missing name in that cast list: Phil Daniels. As big a draw as Glenister, Daniels is currently absent following a bereavement. So we have to give massive props to Andrew Frame who, on the night we went, had only been filling his Cockney shoes for three performances. You couldn’t tell; he is mesmerising. If Daniels returns (and it does seem to be an if), it’s he that has a lot to live up to.
Here’s the bad news: the run is completely sold out. Here’s the good news: the National Theatre releases tickets to every performance for people who are willing to queue up on the day (they go on sale at 9.30am but be prepared to get there before 8am). If that fails, we recommend checking for returns because This House is worth the effort; funny, warm and all the more ridiculous for being based on real events. Also worth getting up early for is to see how the Cottesloe Theatre’s been transformed into the House of Commons, with the audience pit seats now the famous green benches.