17 June 2013

The oil in the wheels of Westminster

Last night at the Cuba Lighthouse I was fortunate to see a film version of the National Theatre's production of James Graham's play This House, about the turbulent politics in Britain from 1974 to 1979. During this time the Labour Party ejected Ted Heath's Conservative government but then struggled to maintain a majority in the House due to the shifting allegiances of minor parties and rebellious backbenchers. The four and a half years of the Wilson / Callaghan government saw economic crises, labour unrest, and rising acrimony in Westminster, and the play reflects this by focusing on those with arguably the hardest job in Parliament: the party whips, who cajole and corral allies into voting with the Government in whatever way they can. It's a comedy, certainly, but it also offers a strong dramatic portrayal of a hugely tense and frustratingly chaotic environment.

What's striking in the play is that despite the bitter partisan rivalries, many of the participants seem to feel a genuine sense of camaraderie for each other. This is particularly evident as the huge impact of mortality amongst Labour ranks in particular during the years the play covers. Labour lost 17 members out of around 300 during the term, which is huge when you think about it, and doubly significant because due to bad blood and accusations of Labour cheating, the Conservative opposition had withdrawn the pairing system that allowed the votes of sick and absent members to be counted. (This isn't a problem here in New Zealand since under Standing Order 140, MPs no longer have to be physically present to cast their vote).

This spirit of camaraderie, the lack of a partisan political preference evident in the script (all sides seem to be treated relatively fairly) and the strong focus on comedy interspersed with the politicking, allows Graham's play a sense of kinship with the legendary world of Yes, Minister, which depicted the world of Whitehall and Westminster with such wit and accuracy that many joked it was more of a documentary than a comedy. It's also closer to the spirit of the original than the current stage version of Yes, Minister, which is entertaining but suffers somewhat from a bleaker outlook than the wry, gently chiding tone of the original.

Part of the fun of This House is seeing the ensemble cast, many of whom play a multitude of roles. It was grand to see Charles Edwards playing the Tory Deputy Whip - he was tremendously Palinesque as Senor Benedick in last year's RSC production of Much Ado About Nothing. But my favourite was probably Matthew Pidgeon. His turn as Norman St John-Stevas, whom I've mentioned before (he was said to have 'boundless immodesty redeemed by self-mocking wit') portrayed the member for Chelmsford (my old manor) as a strutting peacock in a traditional mid-70s gold buttoned navy blazer. And there's his brief but hilarious cameo as the bouffant-laden Michael Heseltine, who in 1976 famously menaced his rivals with the ceremonial mace on the floor of the Commons 'during a heated debate on the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Bill'. (He was also rumoured to be a damn fine shot too).

As befits a playwright who wasn't actually born when the events in question took place, a few minor aspects of the play do feel a little like caricatures - but then so were many aspects of Yes, Minister at the time. For one, the excellent songs played by the live band at the back of the stage - two Bowies and one Sex Pistols - may evoke the era perfectly to us now, but at the time they would hardly have been relevant to many if any of the MPs. (And both of the Bowie tracks, Rock 'n Roll Suicide and Five Years, were actually from 1971, but who's counting).

The Wellington screening may have been a month after the live screening direct from the South Bank across the world to dozens of cinemas, but it was still a huge treat to see. I'll definitely be in line for future performances, and I can't wait for the Royal Shakespeare Company's offerings too. If only we could watch them live too!





See also:

Blog: Leonardo Live, 24 February 2012
Blog: Stratford-upon-Avon, 24 February 2010
Theatre: Good Kate, he is no gentleman, 27 February 2009
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