This House – The Garrick Theatre until 25th February
Review By Franco Milazzo
“One of the key problems today is that politics is such a disgrace, good people don’t go into government.” Those are the words of Donald Trump and, frankly, there will be a lot of people agreeing with him especially after his recent victory in the US. It hasn’t always been this way, though.
If this year has taught us anything it is that one should expect the unexpected, that life is fleeting and that, every now and then, politics can mean everything. This House encompasses all of that into one of this year’s most evocative and timely productions.
It comes with a sturdy pedigree having had not just one but two outings at the National Theatre, once at the Cottesloe Theatre and then a later transfer to the bigger space in the Olivier Theatre. Many of the cast have been retained on its journey to the Garrick, a testament to the quality of the work.
Taking us back from the heady days of 1974 to the election of Margaret Thatcher, writer James Graham creates a political drama based on reality which in terms of machinations and intensity rivals House of Cards (both the new and the better versions). Peppered with music and dance, this vibrant production does not put a foot wrong during its two-and-a-half hour running time.
This House may be set four decades ago but it reverberates with its echoes of modern events: EU membership and the Scottish devolution were the subject of hard-fought referendums, the Labour Party was in disarray and the Liberals were seen as little more than political makeweights. In the mid-Seventies, governments hung on by their fingernails and it was up to the party whips of the Conservative and Labour parties to make sure their leaders maintained any kind of power whichever direction they faced in the Commons. These generals gathered in their private chambers, communicating with each other through “usual channels” as they created one Machiavellian plot after another.
Much of the action revolves around the Deputy Whips played by the highly engaging pair of Nathaniel Parker (Tory Jack Wetherill) and Stephan Rhodri (Labour’s Walter Harrison) but they are part of a truly excellent ensemble which includes Quadrophenia and Parklife’s Phil Daniels as Harrison’s first boss Bob Mellish, current Equity President Malcolm Sinclair as the Conservative Chief Whip and Lauren O’Neil as Harrison’s fellow whip.
The set design may appear a tad plain at first sight but, through clever lighting and the use of a spiral staircase, it takes us into the innards of the Palace of Westminster to the top of Big Ben and even to the brim of the afterlife. A live band adds the occasional melodramatic melody as well as some. Death is never far away in This House and the mature and moving treatment of it is one of the slew of fine touches by director Jeremy Herrin. Herrin himself won a well-deserved Olivier nomination for his work on This House’s 2013 run.
Wetherill and Harrison are the main viewpoints here and, through their eyes, Graham turns parliamentary processes into a kind of poetry or merry dance. Divisions, pairing and other voting traditions are explained succinctly and built upon to create tension, comedy and emotional resonance.
After the events of the play, the careers of the central duo went in opposite directions. A man used to achieving victory by the smallest of margins, Harrison clung onto his own Wakefield seat for one final term in 1983 by a mere 360 votes. As the Speaker of the House when the Commons were first televised, Bernard “Jack” Wetherill went on to become a well-recognised figure on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean and beyond and was made a life peer in 1992, taking the title Baron Wetherill. These two good men both shaped government in a style which was far from disgraceful.