It has been a strange week for this reviewer. Wherever I go I seem to end up on stage, rather than skulking about in the shadows where the dispassionate reviewer belongs. But the clever folks at Norwich Theatre Royal know my predilections, so I found myself ushered onto one of the stage seats in this lively production which focuses on the action in the Parliamentary Whips’ offices during the 1974-1979 Labour Government.
For the student of political cunning this is a fruitful period to look into, as the narrow majority of the two elected Labour Governments of this period always struggled to get their policies through against a combination of bad luck, bizarre events and a deeply hostile international financial climate. This play also lays bare the everyday business model of the Mother of Parliaments, which to any moderately well informed outsider looks a bit like a rather old fashioned gentleman’s club gone rogue.
Writer James Graham has clearly studied the records of events very extensively, but more importantly his interpolation of what happened in the inner sanctums of the whips’ offices is very convincing for those of us who remember the characters involved. The programme gives a list of the 58 MPs who are depicted in this busy play, many household names and some who only the keener political nerd will recall.
The stage set is a nod to the oak panelled Commons chamber, and having touched the wood I can vouch for its solidity – this set is built to last! In true House of Commons fashion there is a real bar on stage for those interval drinks.
It is a fascinating experience to see a play from a seat on the stage but wherever you sit this one is great fun. If you enjoy the cut and thrust of politics you will go through a range of emotions as you watch the ups and downs of the two sides in this ferocious contest as the two main parties battle each other over the future of our country.
Eight members of the cast are in character throughout as members of the two whips offices, while the remaining nine take on a bewildering array of roles, all introduced by the sonorous tones of Mr Speaker so we can keep up. The House convention of referring to members by constituency rather than name is upheld throughout, and is again a delight for those of us who can remember the individuals who Hansard recorded as somewhere between Abingdon and Yeovil. Some gained a notoriety which long outlived them, such as the member for Walsall North, John Stonehouse, who faked his own suicide to evade fraud charges and Alan Clark, from Plymouth Sutton, whose diaries revealed in equal measure his own extensive sexual peccadilloes and his cold blooded approach to political intrigue.
This fast paced show skips through five years of parliamentary business, concentrating on some of the moments of high drama in the House. But we gain an insight into the human characters being the headline names, their strengths and weaknesses, frailties and courage. It is engaging and fascinating and delivered at the same breathless pace that real politics is. There is a band up above the set who play topical and contemporary numbers, and occasionally the MPs join together in a bit of dance and song. The play concentrates on the team in the Labour office, and their struggle to deliver on their mandate, against some quite astonishing dirty tricks from the Tory Whips. This is all very educational about how our confrontational democracy works, and occasionally I cannot help wondering whether a more consensual approach would serve us better.
Above all though this play is good fun. We sprint through five years of turbulent governance in no time at all yet have time to really understand the humanity of the many characters depicted. The energetic cast are all faultless, and seeing them close-up shows just how much hard work goes into a show like this. This is a very timely show given the instability of our current government and gives us all some clues about what is probably happening today in those same Whips offices.
© Julian Swainson 2018
This House, Tuesday to Saturday, 8-12 May, 2018, 7.30pm nightly with 2.30pm matinees on Thursday & Saturday. Tickets £8-£28.50. Discounts for Friends & Corporate Club, Over-60s, Under-18s and Groups. Captioned performance on Thursday 10 May at 2.30pm. Onstage seating at £21 per person is available for each performance but limited to 18 people per show – please call the box office for more information or book in person at the theatre. For more info or to BOOK ONLINE www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk