Wednesday, 28 November 2012

This House by James Graham, National Theatre

17th November 2012

I am devoting more attention to Front of House details and for visually impaired people.  This includes the box office on the phone, in person, an audio CD and a greeting at the event itself.  The National Theatre ticks all these boxes and a performance is stress free. 

On a cold November lunchtime, some early arrivals were let into the box office area as the NT staff were going through the details of the performance back up for visually impaired visitors.  My companion counted 2 dogs and about 6 canes in the audience and I had a chance to speak to a few visitors who are regular theatregoers with and without audio description.  In any live performance for visually impaired audiences there are really 2 live performances and the research by Tony and Bridget with the NT staff in putting the whole show together is commendable.  That said the play is the thing.

This House is a play by James Graham and has started in the studio space of the National Theatre known as The Cottesloe.  The play is sold out for the run though will be transferred to the Olivier Theatre in 2013.  The play recalls the events in the House of Commons between 1974 and 1979.  This is shown as the fall of the Heath government, the arrival of the Labour government under the leadership of Wilson then Callaghan then the victory of the Conservatives in 1979 under Thatcher. 

The National Theatre CD had been sent to me a few weeks ago and it contained much information.  This includes information on the set, characters and descriptions with a useful glossary of parliamentary procedure pre-television broadcasting.  At the time only major broadcasts on radio were live and one had to listen to transcripts of events in a programme which still goes out on the BBC- Today in Parliament. 

The play is really interesting as it deals with the relationships of the opposing team of “whips”.  By tradition the whips do not speak to the public and the Whips Office is usually an important part of the “greasy pole” of many political leaders.  They are supposed to know all the secrets.  I remember many of the events referred to in the background. Each year has an echo such as the Silver Jubilee in 1977 and the surprise resignation of Wilson in 1976.

The set is laid out to resemble the green benches of the House of Commons.  The dialogue is very quickfire with typical adversarial snippets when scene shifts occur from office to chamber. 

Many of the characters have multiple roles and appearances.  In order to keep things simple all the Conservatives (Tories) have “Posh” accents and are often described as Tory Twats.  The Labour characters are usually given Northern English accents.  There are non English roles such as MPs from Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.   Most of the MPs are referred to with the name of their parliamentary constituency and the Speaker refers to them in this way.  Among themselves, the MPs use other terms of endearment including first names.  We have, for example, a reference to Plymouth – Alan Clark (famous for sex and diaries) and Chelmsford – Norman St John Stevas (pompous constitutional expert and deceased).

The dialogue is filled with snippets of details which kept the Labour Government on a knife edge.  The Labour government managed to survive for most of a 5 year term. The whips office has a blackboard on which the razor thin majority is gradually stripped away.  At the time calculators and computers would have been available but a blackboard is a useful prop. 

In hearing about the set, Tony McBride had walked the length of it and had stopped where important parts of debating procedure are embedded in the chamber.  There are 2 redlines which represent 2 sword lengths apart when in debate.  The Serjeant at Arms still has a sword in the chamber and the Speaker still wore a full bottomed wig and gown.  One of the new Labour Whips plays with his stick of office (not unlike my Whitestick). 

We were introduced to the cast and were taken round the props.  The audience is seated on the benches and there is a working bar on the set with Irish Whiskey (surely shome mishtake).  Chris Godwin took me round the set and as he plays the member for the Western Isles, I asked him how his Gaelic was.  To my surprise he answered in Irish.  I was able to sit in the Speaker’s Chair and it can revolve revealing a cleaner’s cupboard complete with Izal loo paper, not Bronco.  We were also able to handle some of the costumes including a very expensive Savile Row suit said to be worth £10,000 in today’s money.  The suit has apparently made several performances on TV, film and theatre, and is worn by Julian Wadham who plays the role of Humphrey Atkins.

The play itself unrolls as a timeline with much of the drama being between the two deputy whips.  In real life, this was Jack Weatherill played by Charles Edwards and Walter Harrison played by Philip Glenister. (Obituary on BBC website: )  For political junkies, broadcasts of the real events and dramas in the House of Commons can be found on the BBC and other channels as well as on radio.  At the time transcripts of debates in the house were taken by Hansard and with some redaction, appeared in the Parliamentary Report.  This continues to this day and is available on line at

Members of the cast who were present during the Touch Tour included:

Christopher Godwin  - (Walsall N/Speaker in Act II/Plymouth Sutton/Ensemble)
Giles Taylor - (Speaker in Act I/Mansfield/Serjeant at Arms in Act II/West Lothian/Ensemble)
Tony Turner – (Bromsgrove/Abingdon/Liverpool Edgehill / Paisley / Fermanagh /Ensemble)
Rupert Vansittart - (Esher/Belfast W/ Ensemble)
Julian Wadham - (Humphrey Atkins, Tory Whip)
Gunnar Cauthery - (Clockmaker/Peebles/Redditch/Nuneaton/Ensemble)

Jane Suffling, the Stage Manger, was also present.

This play will transfer to the Olivier Theatre in February 2013.

Conclusion: The seating in this show added to the drama and if this can be replicated in a larger theatre it should transfer well.  Much of the detail will go over the heads of those who have forgotten the late 1970s but the detail does not detract from the drama of the apparently wasted effort in politics at the time, though having listened to several political books recently (Andrew Rawnsley on the End of the Party (Labour)) it appears that little has changed.  For the sake of balance the term Omnishambles comes to mind. 

By the way the part of the Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles was not creepy enough! I ran across him when he was canvassing to be Rector of Edinburgh University in the 1970s. (Gordon Brown had at least been successful in getting that post.)