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2nd Jul, 2022

Review - 'This House' at Malvern Theatres

Malvern Editorial 19th May, 2018

This House by James Graham

Malvern Theatres

Review by Lee Farley

JAMES Graham’s 2012 play arrives in Malvern after a hugely successful run at the National Theatre, and the West End.

The play is predominantly set in the office of the Chief Whip in Parliament during the years of political complexity 1974-79. This may not seem like the most compelling subject matter for non-politics geeks, but ‘This House’ consistently manages the balance between theatrical entertainment, political realism, and thematic relevance.

The government have an increasingly tiny minority, and are forced to find allies amongst the Liberals, the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs (endearingly referred to as the ‘odds and sods’). Both main parties struggle to maintain loyalty amidst leadership bids and maverick militant factions. Meanwhile the country is divided and increasingly disillusioned with a seemingly distant parliamentary discourse. There are obvious contemporary parallels here, but James Graham is careful not to rely on this for his drama. The audience are left to create links for themselves, and some knowing chuckles are to be had spotting ways in which not much has changed in the House in over 40 years.

James Graham’s script is the star turn here. He brilliantly marries the human drama of these real characters with their struggles to maintain political trickery and ideological integrity. The stakes are high both personally and politically. These are dedicated, driven politicians. We are introduced to the complexities of political activities like ‘pairing’, ‘divisions’, and other ceremonial parliamentary activities, but the play never becomes mired in arcane detail. It’s sharp, witty, compelling, and economical. Graham manages to achieve much within his dialogue. There’s lots going on here – the humanity of the characters is apparent, despite the scheming of the party officials. It’s an impressive juggling act which illuminates how our governing structure is heavily reliant on tradition, backstage deals, and unpredictable human behaviour. As the deputy Tory Chief Whip points out, the system would work perfectly, if it wasn’t for “people”.

The production utilises some enjoyably non-naturalistic theatre tactics to keep the story moving. There’s an excellent live band tearing through some 70s hits, choreographed dance moves, plenty of multi-rolling, a fight on the commons floor, lots of fantastic one-liners, hilarious wigs and costumes, and an excellent use of space to create multiple locations. I was reminded of Lucy Prebble’s ‘Enron’. ‘This House’ has the same approach to a complex, potentially uninspiring subject – throw some theatre at it!

There are terrific, committed, vibrant, and convincing performances from the cast, particularly William Chubb’s angular, agitated Humphrey Atkins; Martin Marquez’s brash but dignified Bob Mellish; and Natalie Grady’s “balls bigger than most of the blokes round here” Ann Taylor.

Occasionally some of the cast’s regional accents are wonky, and some of the comedy could at times benefit from more subtlety, but this production of James Graham’s astonishingly accomplished play is one of the best things I’ve seen at Malvern recently. It’s on until today (Saturday) and is highly recommended for political afficionados and sceptics alike.

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