Playwright James Graham and actor Charles Edwards talk theatre and Westminster.
This House at the National Theatre was one of the best things Londonist saw on stage last year. If pressed, we'd say it was one of the best things we've seen in a long time. A precis doesn't sound all that promising: the ins and outs of a bunch of backroom politicians trying to get laws passed. But then, you could describe The West Wing in a similar fashion and be just as right, and just as wide of the mark. And luckily for us all, it's about to start a new run.
The play is set during the 1970s hung Parliaments, with Labour precariously clinging to power while their majority shifted and slipped as MPs died, swapped sides and, in one case, faked their own death to avoid fraud charges. The action focuses on the Labour and Tory whips' offices, the people responsible for making sure MPs turn up to vote in what is a venerable, traditional (i.e., archaic) system. It could have got bogged down in technicalities, but playwright James Graham is more interested in the people. "My way through it was the characters of Jack Weatherill and Walter Harrison, the two opposite whips," he says. "In real life they had this amazingly complicated but touching friendship across the political divide. Their story was the one that created the spine for me. You can hang everything else off that."
Charles Edwards, who plays Tory deputy whip Jack Weatherill (and last seen on TV screens in Downton Abbey as Lady Edith's editor), also emphasises the personal. "It's a play, it's not a documentary. I, for example, bear no physical resemblance whatsoever to Jack Weatherill, so the premise is not that we are slavishly creating the real people. There are of course elements of them in there, but there's a balance between doing a play and being respectful to the people we're playing."
That prompts a momentary squirm in James. "The first person who was real and came to watch it was Helene Hayman. She's the character who's the first ever to breastfeed in Westminster and I'd met her doing the research, we'd spoken on the phone. But when she's actually sat in front of you with her husband and the Speaker announces that person's name, you see them lean forward... Especially because it's talking about her breasts quite a lot and I felt massively awkward."
This focus on people gives This House its biggest pleasure, its warmth. It's very fashionable to be cynical about politics at the moment and we're not immune (though god knows, sometimes we have cause), and James agrees. "I'm not going to win any cool brownie points by not being that sort of British playwright but it just didn't interest me. I think at a time when our faith in these people is at its lowest ebb, it can be a useful thing to remember that these are human beings. What's good about the 70s is you have these characters who feel more human anyway. I think the modern political system is more full of professional, career politicians that are very hard to associate with, whereas in the 70s you did have a huge range of people that you could conceivably call your neighbours."
It's also incredibly funny, partly from some fantastic one-liners and partly because the real-life situation grew increasingly ridiculous. "The more research I did and the more incredible and stupid it got, the more ludicrous it got," says James. "The stories of fake deaths and how close each vote was and things I couldn't even have imagined or dreamt of, like the clock breaking down halfway through the Parliament. It was a gift, I almost feel quite guilty because it was just all there for me. How true or how anecdotal these things are I've no idea but it's about capturing the sense of that crazy time when the rules went out the window."
Audiences have been enraptured. The National's small Cottesloe Theatre was sold out before the play opened (though it's sometimes hard to know whether that's because it had actors from off t'telly, including Phil Daniels and Vincent Franklin) and now it's transferring to the 1,100 seat Olivier Theatre, the first batch of dates is almost sold out again. (More are on sale 15 February.) The difference in the two theatres means the company is having to re-stage the whole thing almost from scratch.
"We're making it bigger and wider and longer, just in terms of the space," explains Charles. "The old show was very intricate to learn in terms of where you are during it, and we all had our little folders and notebooks where we'd diligently written down all our movements."
"We used to joke that we should get the audience to come and stand backstage because it was so crazy," continues James, referring to the actors who play multiple roles. "With the wigs and the costumes and the exits and entrances it was a machine, it was brilliant."
And then Charles drops a set design bombshell. "In the Olivier we're going to have both intimacy and space because of the nature of the set. The House of Commons benches that we had before are on stage so audiences will be able to sit on the stage as intimately as they could in the Cottesloe. And the benches change when there's a vote, they come together to form the House." You don't get that in the West End. If you want to experience this (and of course you do), select the "On Stage" section when you book.
But remember that with great seats comes great responsibility. In the Cottesloe audience members are right in the mix, and the magnificently coiffed Charles recounts one incident where a woman got a little carried away. "There was one scene where I get particularly close to a member of the audience when I'm talking to an actor, and she leant over and said 'Jack had very short hair'. Right during the scene. So that was helpful. I just turned to her and said 'actually he had no hair' under my breath."
If you prefer the cinema to the theatre you can catch the final performance of This House on 16 May as part of the NT Live programme, where productions are broadcast to cinemas live. There's even a trailer (below) you can watch for a taster.
This House is at the National Theatre from 23 February-16 May. Tickets for performances from 26 April go on sale 15 February, £12-£47. Day tickets are available for sold out performances. For more information about the live broadcast to cinemas on 16 May see the NT Live website. You can follow our interviewees on Twitter at @mrJamesGraham and @CEdwardsActor.