By Paul Goodman
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Mike Smithson of Political Betting urged me, after I recommended an early break-up of the Coalition, to see this account of life without one – that's to say, of the travails and trials of the Labour Governments of 1974-1979, which had either a slender majority or no majority at all. Only the Lib-Lab pact, towards the end of the period, allowed the whips to breathe more easily. What they did before, after and during it provides James Graham, the author, with the substance of his play. In particular, his gaze is fixed on two of them: Walter Harrison, Labour's Deputy Chief Whip, and Bernard Weatherhill, his Conservative opposite number.
This was the pre-Twitter age. No, never mind that: this was the pre-mobile phones age, when the the system was in the public sector and it took months to get one. There were only three television channels, government fixed wages (or tried to), inflation touched over 25%, the unions were a mighty power in the land, the Prime Minister was rumoured to be a Soviet spy, America was traumatised by Watergate, and today's culture of disclosure was almost unimaginable. (Jimmy Saville was master of all he surveyed on Top of The Pops.)
In Graham's Commons, class divisions between the parties are as unrelievedly demarcated as those in any episode of Are You Being Served. There are few women, and those present in the Whips' Office (Labour's Ann Taylor) are treated as honorary men. Some MPs are hauled through the lobbies blind drunk. Others lie sick on hospital trolleys and are counted through to vote. Others still drop dead of sheer exhaustion. Whips shout and scream, accusing each other of cheating. Labour start with no majority, gain a small one, see it eroded by deaths and by-elections, win some relief from the Lib-Lab pact, watch it end – and are finally brought down.
This House started in the National's smallest theatre, the Cottesloe, and has transferred to its largest, the Olivier. The staging slickly makes the most of its big spaces. A huge Big Ben clockface hangs as a backdrop like a full moon. A mini-rock band perches near it – ringing the musical changes of the times, as they move through Bowie to the Sex Pistols. Members of the audience mingle with actors on green benches, which swing to and fro, re-creating the adversarial battleground of the Commons. The Speaker is mauled, manhandled, mugged. No, hold on a second. He's not being mugged. He's being dragged to the Chair!
From it, he calls out the names of the MPs by constituency – whether the action is set in the Chamber, where a bonkers-looking Heseltine grabs the mace and brandishes it, or in the Government and Opposition Whips' Offices, where exhausted men and one woman crack up and make up. "Wakefield," calls the Speaker. "Croydon North East". "Henley." "Chelmsford." Those of us old enough to remember the MPs of the period (a category into which I fit – as does Smithson, come to think of it) may be distracted by the physical differences between the politicians and the actors that portray them, but the renditions somehow ring true.
It is ensemble acting but, for me, two performances stand out. The first is Vincent Franklin's apprehensive Michael Cox, who becomes Labour's Chief Whip: bowed, stooped, body hunched defensively against shock and betrayal, he finds solace by clambering up to the clock tower and nattering to an attendant. The second is Rupert Vansittart's portly Carol Mather – or, rather, Carol Mather MC, whose impressive bulk, wartime courage and graphic swearing are a throwback to a vanished age. But the axis around on the action turns is Reece Dinsdale's Harrison and Charles Edwards's Weatherhill.
Like the two soldiers in that last poem by Rupert Brooke, the two men are drawn together by adversity. "I am the enemy you killed, my friend," Brooke writes, and their mirror-image work as fixers somehow turns Graham's whips, so different in political viewpoint, into reflections of each other. He writes in the programme note that "some incidents and characters have been altered for dramatic purposes", so I doubt that, driven by a sense of honour, Weatherhill offered, in effect, to save the Labour Government by not voting in a division. But I may well be wrong.
Three of the authors's previous plays are based on Conservative politicians – not always sympathetically – and much of his account is drawn from former Labour Whips. So I feared the worst. I shouldn't have done. The wily Harrison may be at the forefront of the play, but Graham presents the views of the two sets of politicians fairly and evenly: "You don't mind s**t, so long as everyone's equally in the s**t," Julian Wadham's Humphrey Atkins cries to Cox (or words to that effect). Graham triumphantly captures the claustrophic fragility of the 1970s. His play ends with Margaret Thatcher's voice intoning her opening words outside Downing Street.
All this is a reminder how quickly time speeds by and how antique the past becomes. But the play also conveys a sense of the slowness of the passing of time. "Five years, my brain hurts a lot/Five years, that's all we've got," the cast chants as it joins Bowie's chorus. I came to this This House very late, and its run is almost over. But a moral I draw from it is that while governing without Coalition for half a decade would be unbearable, doing so for six months would be another matter entirely. "Better hope, though, it's not another hung Parliament in 2015," I said to an MP friend with whom I saw it. I suspect that the same thought had already occured to him.
This House ends its run on May 16