Review: This House at the Tobacco Factory, Bristol

Order! Order! A bewigged and authoritative Louise O’Dowd as a very young-looking Speaker of the House of Commons announced a bewildering number of MPs as they appeared in director Nik Partride’s production of This House.

Premiered in 2012 at the Cottesloe Theatre, James Graham’s play about the arm-twisting machinations in the behind-the-scenes whips’ offices during the Labour Government of the late 1970s is not the best advert for democracy. As cast member Tommy McAteer said in a video clip on Twitter about the politics, it was effectively ‘two lots of children throwing sand in each other’s faces’. A time when principles were compromised for votes and Punch and Judy politics reigned supreme.

There was a threateningly scary Peter Burley as Labour chief whip Michael Cocks and a controlled and aggressive Tommy Belshaw as his opposite number Humphrey Atkins as they did their best to keep their respective party members in line. Labour’s tiny majority in the October 1974 election led to the crisis that saw the support of ‘the odds and sods MPS’ of the SNP, Ulster Unionists and the Liberals become vital in order to pass any legislation. It gave them power as King makers, and it was a vote on Scottish devolution to keep the SNP happy that eventually led to the 1979 election of Margaret Thatcher.

In an ensemble cast where doubling up was required to portray the hundreds of MPs battling to be noticed we heard a variety of delicious regional accents. There were the members for Walsall North (Akim Bangura), for Fermanagh (Samuel Bell), Plymouth Sutton (Tom Canavan), Coventry North West (Kerr Louden), West Lothian (Kurtis Thompson) and Redditch (Christopher Williams) who all made their entrances and their exits in at what times was a confusing list of names and constituencies. But a great test of speaking in convincing accents for the cast. Samuel Bell had to switch from an Ulster brogue to one from Ilford in east London and then back up St Helens on Merseyside.  Likewise, Kerr Louden went from Brum to East Ender and Hebrides to Mansfield – such was the range of vowels coached by Sue Cowan. A showcase of talent presented in the Tobacco Factory’s in the round space with its impressive Westminster time piece graphic as a backdrop designed by Marta Sitarz. This House gave the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School’s male actors a chance at giving more than a passing impression of middle aged and elderly MPs, dressed in their palette of 1970s brown trousers and jackets, wide ties and tweed suits. A shout out to costume designer Jasmine Thompson and Gracie Green as costume supervisor and her assistants Rosie Gayner, Ava Rowan Harker, Bessie Mo and Laya Purohit plus costume makers Gracie Green and Arthur Wyatt.

You wouldn’t want to get into a fight with Tommy McAteer as Harold Wilson’s bruiser and hard man Bob Mellish or for that matter Ephraim Sampson as manipulative MP Fred Silvester who strong armed any wavering Tories to vote. Keeping a score of the Government’s majority that began with three before falling to minus one and a vote of confidence was marked on a blackboard by the cast as numbers were rubbed and replaced. Other props included a number of spinning desks and chairs used to great effect by movement director Joêl Daniel in at times beautifully choreographed sequences that symbolised the changing fortunes of the politicians. And Michael Heseltine’s stunt of seizing the mace from in front of the Speaker’s chair and waving it around was a wonderful piece of movement with the whole cast seemingly involved in a choreographed comic brawl directed by Jonathan Howell. It was one of several wonderfully staged set pieces enhanced by Willow Digweed’s lighting and Andy Jenks’ composed music directed by Jonathan Grosberg. I could have done with more of these sequences as with a large cast they are a superb spectacle for the audience.

At close to three hours James Graham’s play is a tough ask for an audience although there is an interval – but in some ways it also reflected the interminably long sessions in parliament between 1974 and 1979 that This House brings to life. A long list of MPs too many to mention – although the playwright wisely side-lined Ted Heath, Harold Wilson, James Callaghan and Margaret Thatcher as noises off personalities. Although a nerveless Tom Canavan as David Steel the Liberal MP for Selkirk and Peebles did make a brief appearance as the leader of the Liberal half of the doomed Lib-Lab pact that kept Callaghan is office for a little longer.

Walter Harrison the ill-fated Labour MP whose gentleman’s agreement with Tory Bernard Weatherill not to vote led to the final collapse of the Government in 1979 was played superbly by (if as a rather youthful looking 67-year-old) Francis Redfern. Wheelchair bound Dudley O’Shaughnessy portrayed frail Pontrefract MP Joe Harper who died in office delaying an operation just so he could vote. A very sick performance if ever there was one – excuse the pun. And as the only female assistant whip an excellent Georgia Cudby had to keep her cool as Labour’s Ann Taylor, the honourable member for Bolton West, who was subject to some 1970s sexist comments as the first ever woman to hold the office. The play also demonstrated how only a small number of strong-minded women got to the top in Government and Parliament in that era of flares and fag-ends until a certain Margaret Thatcher came to power. Speaking of fag-ends this is a smoke free production which is in contrast to the times portrayed when everyone seemed to be lighting up a Benson and Hedges cigarette although there were a few pints and tumblers of whisky on show as one would expect in a booze fuelled House of Commons. Something that hasn’t changed to this day. A brilliant production – and a great spectacle with a fast moving story – but you need to be wide awake to catch all of its nuances that still chime with 2023’s politics.

Harry Mottram

The show runs at the Tobacco Factory, Bristol, until Saturday 18th March, 2023.

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