This House for one week only (Tuesday 27th to Saturday 31st March) turns the Festival Theatre Edinburgh into the heart of British government at The Palace of Westminster. Taking as its source material the 1974 general election which saw Labour take parliamentary power (even though Conservative had more votes) this is the story of the often unpopular backroom deals made with other minority parties by the government of the day to stay in power (sound familiar to anyone watching politics today?) In this election Labour/Harold Wilson won 301 seats, which was 17 seats short of an overall majority. The Conservatives/Edward Heath won 287 seats. With Labour not having enough seats to enter into a coalition with another party to make a parliamentary majority, the result was the almost ungovernable “hung parliament”.
Written by James Graham and directed by Jeremy Herrin, this National Theatre/Chichester Festival Theatre production has already been getting highly favourable reviews throughout its performances, and it is easy to see why as it is a deftly woven and insightful spotlight on the inner workings of the British political system, an old and unwritten system relying heavily upon traditions that should not work at all in any modern world, but for some strange reason does.
There are some fine performances here from Martin Marquez, James Geddes, Tony Turner, David Hounslow, Natalie Grady, William Chubb, Matthew Pidgeon, Giles Cooper and the rest of our large cast, but despite this, there are some major flaws here to me that make this an at times difficult work for some theatre-goers to sit back and enjoy. This production relies heavily on the viewer being familiar with the 1974 general election, British politics of that period, the key political players and also how the political system works. If, like me, you were around at this time then you will remember the mayhem of the time – massive political unrest, large scale strikes and power cuts to mention but a few issues. If you are not old enough to remember this time, or are not a student of political history then the chances are that the history of 400 years ago is more familiar to you than political history of around 40 years ago. The result is that a fine script becomes obtuse unless you know who the people on stage are and what some political and traditional references are (the programmes does enlighten some of these issues a bit).
This is a little bit like one of the many “super-hero” films out there at the moment. Yes, you can just watch it for what it is, but unless you know who is who and a little bit of the relationships between the characters and some of their history then so much is just lost on you and becomes just dialogue that has lost much of its power.
There is an interesting use of live music here too as the sounds of David Bowie and The Sex Pistols create a background to the period. David Bowie’s “Five Years” takes on an entirely new meaning in this context.
This is a story on many different levels. It is not only about a government apparently more interested in staying in power and keeping the other side out than running a country efficiently, but this story is also the birth and rise of Margaret Thatcher as a major political figure.
To be fair to this work, I was reviewing it because political history from this period has long been an interest of mine and I was immediately attracted to this work and found it a fascinating insight into not only this period, but also how some little facts that were unknown to the public at the time had major implications for British politics. Often, the biggest moments in history are decided by small events, and “what if” is the biggest question to be asked at the end here. If however politics and political history are not your interests then you might find yourself like many of our “back benchers” falling asleep at times.
Review by Tom King