I wasn’t brave enough to invite anyone to the performance of This House streamed from London’s National Theater into Coolidge Corner on Thursday night.
A 1970s hung parliament, Conservatives and Labourites, social security and devolution bills. Two hours and forty-five minutes. Yawn.
But I have one word for you: whip.
Hands up if you know what a congressional or House of Commons whip does. By the word itself and textbook definitions many of us grasp what they’re responsible for. But what they do, day to day?
The play opens with a historic office swap in the Palace of Westminster.
“Whoever it is, it’s true. Clear your desk,” a chief whip barks into a ringing phone.
It’s 1974 and Labour’s back in power and exchanging offices with the defeated Tories. Labour’s now got the most MPs compared to any other party, but not a majority. That’s called a hung parliament, and it means they need all their votes plus those of select “odds and sods” (members from 3rd parties) to pass any legislation.
They’re staring at a fierce uphill battle as they attempt to govern—to get anything actually done—as a minority. For almost five years.
And in the UK legislators *must* be physically present to vote. So there’s an important tradition of “pairing,” a gentleman’s agreement between parties in which an absent member’s missing vote is balanced out by an opposing member who agrees to miss the vote for that purpose.
OK. That’s really all the politics you need to know or understand.
The rest is about the people—in particular the “Yorkshire bastard” and “aristotwatic” chief deputy whips of both parties—the stories, the quirky details, human foibles, and to my ignorant mind it achieves a dramatic holy grail: it renders politics and government personal, relatable, demystified. Suspenseful, and funny.
Playwright James Graham could not have asked for richer real-world circumstances off which to launch his drama. Death, suicide, all manner of wheeling and dealings, the Tory boycott of pairing and the chaos that ensued, one infamously stopped clock, and one soon-to-be famous “lady” catching a break.
You won’t believe all that happened at Westminster from 1974-79. And that’s the thing—it seems all major events depicted really happened.
Even, I have to trust, the crazy ties and ridiculously flared suit trousers.
The whips’ office is the Party human resources department, the crisis center . . . the principal’s office . . . the rectory . . . the schoolyard playground . . . all rolled into one.
An unwritten rule dictates that whips don’t publish memoirs. By imagining and illuminating why, this play gives us the next best thing.
Here’s the Labour whips getting some good news in the presence of the Tory chief whip (who entered their office using his old key).
Congratulations, Mr. James Graham!
More NT Live Performance Reviews by Lynne Blaszak
A Small Family Business & Ayckbourn’s Art of Playmaking (June 2014)
Dear Christopher: A Meditation on #CuriousIncident (May 2014)
Othello by William Shakespeare (Sept 2013)
NT Live: You Should Go