reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 13 March
How is it done? That’s an intriguing question for most people, whether the subject is cookery or politics, plays or cookery. James Graham’s play is based on and in the House of Commons between 1974 and 1979.
It shows us in fictionalised form what happens when Governments with small or no absolute majorities have leaders who fail to keep tight control of the slippery and fluid situations.
We hear about these Prime Ministers (actual or ambitiously waiting) but we are watching the backroom-boys (and occasional girl) of the Whips’ offices as they manipulate Members to achieve those all-important knife-edge majority votes.
Jeremy Herrin and Jonathan O’Boyle’s production emphasises the bear-garden aspect and associated callousness which underpin contentious votes. Acting as chorus is the Speaker (Miles Richardson in Act One, Orlando Wells in Act Two).
Designer Rae Smith uses various on-stage levels as well as the auditorium to draw us into the action. A rock band adds to the surreal effect, but the production’s impact has to rely on the main characters.
Giles Cooper is the eager new recruit to the Tory whips’ office, run with a certain degree of cynicism by old-school William Chubb and businessman Matthew Pidgeon. But it is with the Labour whips, frantically shoring up increasingly wafer-thin majorities, that the real drama lies.
Chief Whip Tony Turner and his energetic deputy Martin Marquez both give fully fleshed characterisations of men who never forget who put them into Parliament – and why. James Gaddas and David Hounslow give fine support while Natalie Grady shows us a young woman developing both confidence and authority.
There are a succession of well-defined cameos and vignettes to remind us that politics at this level is a matter of priority juggling both within the House and outside it.Does a vote count for more than a life?
As befits a play and production of Chichester Festival Theatre, Headlong and National Theatre provenance, it is an object lesson in ensemble. One which has its audience as keyed up with tension as the drama onstage.
Four and a half-star rating.
This House runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 17 March with matinées on 15 and 17 March. it can also be seen at the Theatre Royal, Norwich between 8 and 12 May.