The Beatles had split up and the punks hadn’t made it to the West End yet. It was Bob Mellish and his merry band of whips who were calling the tune. They must have thought they were rock stars!
Rock stars – the Whips in the Strangers Bar – Photo by Johan Persson
Coincidentally, 1974, the year in which This House starts, was when I personally became aware of politics… well the characters in politics at least.
Ted Heath and Harold Wilson of course, Jeremy Thorpe, Shirley Williams, Airey Neave, Ian Paisley, Roy Hattersley, Nigel Lawson, Barbara Castle, Dennis Skinner, Tony Benn, Michael Heseltine, Francis Pimm, Enoch Powell, Cecil Parkinson, Clement Freud, Denis Healey, Michael Foot, Norman Lamont, Norman St John-Stevas, Norman Fowler, Norman Tebbit. John Prescott, Keith Joseph, Frank Hatton, Douglas Hurd, Betty Boothroyd and Margaret Thatcher.
What a roll call! But in This House they are just the chorus!
In 1974 the Labour government were under threat, first as the largest party trying to rule a hung parliament and then as the governing party with a majority of just 3… then 2… then… and, making sure they all toe the line is a small band of brothers and sisters in the whips office.
To keep the limelight where it should be, in the Whip’s offices, and the pace up, the chorus of supporting MPs are introduced by the speaker as if rising to address the house. Thus the machinations of the Member for Finchley, or Henley, or Leeds East are kept in their place, as unimportant side-shows, letting our whips rule the roost – from both sides of the house: miners and electricians against the “aristo-twats”.
Like all great history plays, James Graham‘s This House is about the people in the story, not the story itself and certainly not the politics. Yes, we know what happens in the end, Graham doesn’t change history just to keep us on our toes. So what is left to enjoy are the personal journies of these wonderful characters and the telling of their story.
This House – Bob Mellish (Phil Daniels), Walter Harrison (Steffan Rhodri) – Photo by Johan Persson
The cast play their parts immaculately, across the board, although maybe Steffan Rhodri‘s Walter Harrison, is worthy of singling out, as well as Phil Daniels as Bob Mellish – the chief whip who struggles to keep the sinking ship afloat before backing the wrong MP and being forced to retire before the job is done.
They are wonderfully aided and abetted by Michael Cocks (Kevin Doyle), Joseph Harper (David Hounslow) and Ann Taylor (Lauren O’Neil) whilst the opposition is handsomely provided by Jack Wetherill (Nathaniel Parker), Humphrey Atkins (Malcolm Sinclair), Fred Sylvester (Ed Hughes).
The story is told with superb gusto and joie d vivre. A small rock band sets the scene with tunes form the era, our heroes do their thing and the huge Greek chorus of MPs keep the momentum going as they play the rest of the house… all helped by wonderful choreography by Olivier-nominated Scott Ambler. No, these MP’s don’t dance: not in an Ed Balls way, but they’ve got their moves!
The set, designed with wit and love by Rae Smith, is peopled by members of the audience, as well as member’s of the house. It effortlessly becomes the commons chamber, then the whips office, the Stranger’s Bar, the clock tower, even, at one point, the Atlantic Ocean!
But the star of the show is James Graham‘s script and the way director, Jeremy Herrin, brings it to the stage.
Never didactic, always entertaining: the audience easily accepts the language of the piece and the conventions of time and place, which means that we can plunge in to the action with very little needed in the way of exposition.
This is good because there is an awful lot of action to cram in – most of the 70’s actually – and, unbelievably, politics in the 70’s was even more exciting then than it is now: at least This House makes it seem that way!