A remarkable transformation takes you into the heart of the House of Commons, right into the thick of the action, and what action it is: four and a half years of tumultuous Labour government, its immediate prequel and its immediate aftermath concertina-ed into one glorious evening.
Rae Smith’s terrific design gives director Jeremy Herrin the perfect platform on which to orchestrate everything to perfection on a night which ticks every single box.
Not only is this a cracking story inventively and strikingly told, it is also deeply fascinating, a chance to relive the background to – in my case – my school years in a fabulous game of spot the MP, everything seen from the point of view of the whips. In the red corner, they are desperately trying to cling on to power, in the blue corner, they’re equally desperately trying to wrest it for themselves.
All the great characters of the age – excluding, wisely, those at the very top of the tree – pass before our eyes, from Norman St John-Stevas to Alan Clark, from John Stonehouse to Jeff Rooker, via numerous others, identified only by their constituencies leaving the audience to join the dots.
But best of all, the show’s greatest virtue – and something theatre in general just occasionally forgets – is that the production is so deliciously entertaining, passing in a flash as power games of every kind play out before our eyes.
Inevitably, there’s an element of caricature in the sneering “aristotwat” Tories and the foul-mouthed working-class Labour members. But maybe things really were simpler back then.
Either way, the characterisation is a delight from first to last, with fine performances from Malcolm Sinclair as the Tory chief whip and Nathaniel Parker as his deputy on the one side and Phil Daniels and Kevin Doyle as successive Labour chief whips on the other, plus Steffan Rhodri as the party’s great fixer.
There is desperation in both camps, but you also sense their sheer enjoyment of the game of politics. The stakes couldn’t be higher, but the fun is undoubtedly there amid the frustrations as they plot and squabble in true playground manner.
Put it all together, and it’s – for me at least – the highlight of the final season from Jonathan Church and Alan Finch as the CFT’s artistic and executive directors respectively. We’ve still got the Shakespeares to come, but for fun and fascination, This House is going to be tough to beat – rich in nostalgia, brilliantly staged and riotously entertaining.
Presumably in 30 years’ time we can expect something similar on our equally-momentous Brexit summer of 2016…
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