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THEATRE ONLINE First time tragedy, second time bitter farce

MARY CONWAY recommends a brilliant exposé of two periods when political principle was sacrificed to power-hungry expediency in Parliament

This House
National Theatre at Home

SET in the era between 1974 and 1979, when Labour struggled with a hung parliament, and written in 2011-12 when the same stalemate forced the Tories into coalition with the Lib Dems, This House is a salutary reminder of those times.

Writer James Graham’s rationale for the play, now available free online, hinges on those common acts of political expediency which throw light on the present by exploring the past. His great exposé of the real machinations of a working government, interspersed with moments of farcical brilliance, is a lesson for any voting public. 

Today, the play has a new and different resonance. In 2012, there was perhaps complacency in  laughing at a parliamentary system in breakdown but now we urgently require it to control the weirdos and work on our behalf. There’s still laughter but with a bitter edge.

Graham has certainly done his homework. Set in the Whips’ offices at Westminster, he reveals the moment-by-moment shenanigans of various Labour whips as they work, day and night, to ensure a winning majority for each Bill as it appears.

Forgotten are the policies that got them elected — what matters is the game and winning it. Principle is at odds with practice and the personal is often sacrificed  for political advantage.

And the essential close-working between the Labour whips and their Tory counterparts, particularly in the character of Jack, accentuates their mutual understanding as colleagues rather than their opposed allegiances.  

There are moments of true farce, as when MPs, too ill to walk, are piggy-backed into the chamber for voting. And there is poignancy as the lifetime struggles of individuals for the socialist cause bite the dust. This is real insight into the personal cost of public life.

Phil Daniels is a hugely authentic as the right-wing Labour chief whip Bob Mellish, while Reece Dinsdale as Walter and Charles Edwards as Jack hold centre stage with a mixture of personal and professional detail that engrosses.

What stands out is the focus not on the big known names of the time but on the ordinary MPs, called mostly by their constituency name, as the whips struggle to know them all.

“Mansfield is stuck in Belfast, “Rotherham has collapsed at the despatch box,” “Walsall North has committed suicide...no. He’s alive” and “Here’s a laugh, they say Finchley might be the new opposition leader... believe that if you like!” are hugely enjoyable.

Historically accurate and dramatically fast and fluid, the minutiae of the period will strike powerful chords with all who remember it and will be an eye-opener for those who don’t.

A clever, hilarious and hugely relevant exposition of Parliament at work, it’s a wistful reminder of what Labour might have achieved if the numbers had worked.

Available until June 4 on YouTube, youtube.com/watch?v=6vsSHyjEMrg

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