The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 17th April, 2018
This hit production from the National Theatre/Chichester Festival Theatre/Headlong comes to this town and reminds this reviewer of its brilliance. James Graham’s script, dealing with the behind-the-scenes, Machiavellian machinations of the Chief Whips of both main parties, mines a rich seam of humour. It is the 1970s and Labour has a minority government. All the stops have to be pulled out to win over the ‘odds and sods’ to vote on the government’s side.
It’s a macho – or rather, blokeish world of hard drinking, hard swearing immaturity, where tradition is held in awe but nothing more so than the ‘gentlemen’s agreement’. The opposing sides wind each other up, one-upmanship is king and fair play hardly gets a look-in. It’s a chess game on a massive scale, with the Chief Whips sniping at each other like rival head prefects.
Martin Marquez is excellent as tough-talking Labour whip, Bob Mellish, with William Chubb’s Humphrey Atkins as the perfect sneering foil over on the Tory side. Graham characterises both sides in broad terms: the Labour lot are beer-swilling, down-to-earth working class men with ‘real jobs’ in their backgrounds; the Tories are privileged, entitled snobs. Tony Turner’s Michael Cox remains decent in his desperation, while on the other side, Harry Kershaw’s member for Chelmsford makes a prissy and hilarious impression. There is a running joke about apologising for swearing in front of that rare creature, a female MP – Natalie Grady’s Ann Taylor soon proves she can give as good as she gets, and there is a delicious turn from Louise Ludgate as the member for Coventry South West, silently doling out the cash to pay a fine.
Labour’s Walter Harrison (James Gaddas) and his oppo Jack Weatherill (Matthew Pidgeon) share a mutual if grudging respect for each other and each other’s methods in a relationship that encapsulates the cut-and-thrust of party politics at that time. Meanwhile, off-stage, rises the spectre of evil that will poison politics for decades, like Voldemort gradually taking physical form, as the member for Finchley, unseen, climbs the ranks to Tory party leader, ultimately becoming prime minister. As the lights fade, an extract from Thatcher’s inaugural speech brings the fun and games to a chilling end…
Director Jeremy Herrin maintains a cracking pace, keeping the barbed remarks and the fur flying, eliciting energetic performances from his ensemble. A live band keeps the energy levels up, with short and long bursts to cover transitions or to underscore the more stylised sequences depicting the arcane rituals of the House.
It’s a hilarious piece, a satirical cartoon of a show recounting a remarkable time in British politics, but be aware: the current mob who occupy This House for real are not playing for laughs.