This House seems very aware that its subject matter alone is not enough to sustain audience interest, especially for those too young to remember the period. Despite the 1974-79 parliament being “the most dramatic” in living memory according to writer James Graham, the true story behind the play is simply not exciting enough to engage. Where it could comment cleverly on the present, it is often content to stick to the history.
Fortunately, the play cannot be called entirely talky or dry. While the plot, staging and costumes create an impeccably isolating and muggy impression of parliament – dark panelled wood, decade-appropriate hair and suits – there is respite in a number of innovative techniques, some of which would be gimmicky if not so dramatically effective. In contrast to the setting and characters, a band equal parts Bowie, Sex Pistols and Ian Dury play between scenes, and provide music for increasingly strange dance scenes involving the entire cast. They even play over what can only be described as a montage scene, allowing for the passing of time much as a film might, and are arguably the best thing about the production.
While it rarely goes so far as to bring about a real belly laugh, the humour of the piece keeps viewers onside too. It also shocks by being rather crass for a largely older audience. The class contrast between the patrician Conservatives and the Labour MPs is used to great comic effect, never funnier than in their differing accents and the frequency with which they resort to foul language: the Labour nickname for the opposition – “the aristotwats” – is on the tamer end of the scale. There is the sense that The Thick of It was an inspiration on the script, though that comedic style does not always translate seamlessly to the stage.
Most innovative of all is the play’s unique brand of audience interaction: not only do a small portion of the audience sit on stage as frontbenchers for the entirety of the production, but during the interval the Commons bar at the back of the stage is opened as a real bar to the audience.
It is This House’s ability to think outside the box that keeps audiences on their toes for the gargantuan three-hour running time. For a play that also doubles as a history lesson – the programme contains a glossary of Parliamentary jargon you will be hearing over the next 180 minutes – it is also miraculously entertaining, even if in fits and starts.
Runs 27th-31st March
Image: Johan Persson