It’s always an occasion to celebrate when a National Theatre production takes in Birmingham as part of its touring circuit, and especially when it’s a production with such acclaim as Headlong’s This House. Written by James Graham, the plays delves into back offices and shadowy corridors of Westminster; the battleground for Labour and Tory whips struggling for a majority in 1970s Britain.
James Graham’s sharply written script reflects the political turmoil of the era by carefully building instantly recognisable stereotypes of Labour and Conservative MPs, before deconstructing and blurring the boundaries between these very traditional definitions. Despite being carefully researched, inspired by anecdotes of whips from the era, Graham’s script is remarkably timeless. Introducing MPs by constituency rather than name (Margaret Thatcher is never mentioned by name, but rather called Finchley or The Lady) forces the audience to focuses on the issues and conflicts at hand rather than individual personalities.
The parallels between the script and the current political climate, from leadership challenges, to minority governments and the UK’s membership of the European Union, are completely fascinating. In This House, it is the whips rather than the party leaders who are the stars of the show. Their wheeling and dealing tactics, devious schemes and absolute determination to succeed at any cost make for a production brimming with drama and dry comedy.
Directors Jeremy Herrin and Jonathan O’Boyle strike a fast and relentless pace with quick-fire dialogue and practically no scene changes. The ensemble cast, playing at least three roles each, signify different characters with simple costume changes and an impressive array of accents. Eccentric, almost cartoonish characterisations serve to highlight the chaos and discord of Westminster, from Ian Barritt’s softly spoken, tea drinking Western Isles to Louise Ludgate’s redoubtable, hilarious Coventry South.
The two teams of Whips carry the show with relentless energy and quick-witted repartee. William Chubb (as Tory chief whip Humphrey Atkins) rules the roost with the crisp English accent, subtlety and authority of a Bond villain. Natalie Grady is fantastic as the sole female whip, Ann Taylor, earning spontaneous applause for her feisty, no-nonsense delivery. James Gaddas is the heart and soul of the piece, with his passionate, beautifully rendered performance as Labour deputy chief whip Walter Harrison.
Rae Smith’s highly detailed designs transport the audience into the heart of the Westminster, with the beautiful, highly symbolic backdrop of Big Ben looming throughout. Paule Constable’s bright, clinical lighting designs suggest the cramped boxes of the whip’s offices, and the bright spotlights of the House of Commons.
Sitting on the stage itself, amid the action on the iconic green leatherette benches, is a highly recommendable experience. There’s even the chance to purchase an interval drink from the very reasonable Westminster bar. A genuinely exciting, immersive production that should not be missed.
This House is at Birmingham Rep until 21 April and tickets are available here.