Fringe Online 2020
Directed by James Herrin, designed by Rae Smith, Lighting Paul Anderson (original Designer Paule Constable), with Music by Stephen Warbeck, and Choreographer Scott Ambler and Sound design by Ian Dickinson. Associate Director Joe Murphy, Voice Work Richard Ryder, Dialect Penny Dyer, Head of Costume Carol Lingwood, Head of Wigs, Hair, Make-Up Guiseppe Cannas, Music performed by Jim Hustwit, Sam Edginton, Critiano Castellitto, with Gunnar Cauthery and Phil Daniels supplying Guest Vocals.
For NT Live Direction for Screen Tim van Somoren, Technical Direction Christopher C Bretnall, Script Supervisor Cecilia Savage, Lighting Director’s Bernie Davis, Sound Supervisor Conrad Fletcher, Assistant Director Laura Vallis. Executive Producer David Sabel, Producer Emma Keith, Associate Producer Sara Israel, Till June 4th.
In 2012 when James Graham’s This House premiered, hung parliaments were a raw subject. From 1974-79 Labour gained a majority of three over the Tories, not including other parties; and later on a complete majority of three.
Eighteen deaths later – all Labour MPs – and it’s clear the whole period, with Lib-Lab pacts, corralling Scottish and Welsh Nationalists and disaffected Irish MPs, was a drama of getting just one MP to vote onside: the job of the Whips’ Office.
Directed by James Herrin this NTLiveAtHome screens the 2013 Olivier transfer from the original Cottesloe premiere. Rae Smith’s design with its gantry and Big Ben features a fluid floor that serves as Whips Office – two can oscillate with lighting – and the Commons itself. A miracle of rapid dissolves, not least the cast’s (choreographer Scott Ambler superb here), it brings visceral theatricality mad melees and quick-change cut-and-thrusts of a cast bouncing off each other like pinballs. And changing names with the places they represent like nicknames, announced by Speaker 2’s Andrew Havill (one of his several roles, replacing Giles Taylor’s Speaker 1).
The Olivier’s re-design features Commons seating that swings away and lighting by Paul Anderson that’s both forensic and merciless, mercifully shadowy when some need solitude. Indeed there’s something of the night about it, when all those votes get cast.
Seen from the Whips’ Office of both parties we see not just the thick of it in the 1970s, but beyond the deals, stitch-ups, badinage we see at the play’s heart the growing warmth between the two Deputy Chief Whips as they realize humanity and indeed personal warmth.
Though we get two Labour Chief Whips – Phil Daniels’ cockney Bob Mellish and Vincent Franklin’s put-upon Michael Cocks, it’s the Deputy Chief Whips’ tale, Reece Dinsdale’s Walter Harrison who goes at things like a featherweight boxer. This team’s opposite Julian Wadham’s disdainful Humphery Atkins – rather like Sir Humphery.
From the start it’s clear everything depends on these two. Weatherill’s suave talking versus Harrison’s brilliant intelligence-gathering and brokering private deals.
It’s Charles Edwards’ Jack Weatherill from an elegant tailor’s family who’s the real fixer and Harrison’s oppo. Edwards admirably exudes fair play decisively not including opportunism and ruthlessness. But both men stop short of the final ruthlessness that could make or break other men; and in one astonishing moment both rise magnificently above their parties in this two-hour-forty play that never lets up.
Dinsdale taking over from Philip Glenister gives a wiry wily performance of a fixer who conjures every rabbit but who stops short of one. Daniels, departing his role tells him he’s not making him Chief Whip – he’s too important. Dinsdale convinces us in his switchback mode the seedy regality of Chief Whip – now Franklin’s over-anxious frantic losing-it Cocks – would be wasted.
If you’re thinking this will in any way be dry and as thrilling as a bean count with added country, well some is, about 1% tiny factoids to ground an all singing barber’s shop chorus, in fact the whole Commons cast led by two – Gunnar Cauthery and Phil Daniels. There’s a band too, Acoustic Jim & The Wires and that looming Big Ben above all, which for much of the play’s stopped: cue another mini-drama.
There’s some marvellous scenes – several times involving Lauren O’Neil’s Ann Taylor only 26 who as O’Neil reveals gradually grows her steel; and in one of her roles Helen Lymbery’s ensemble character demands the right to breast-feed in the whips’ Office. She’s also the unruly left-win Coventry SW prepared to vote against in a perilous tie if the workers’ demands aren’t met.
And then there’s Havill again as Walsall North, in a word John Stonehouse who to Stephen Warbeck’s punk rock score strips off and is carried out in a blue-silk billow of night waves. Moments later he’s in a cell being angrily briefed on being let back into the Commons for a crucial vote before slinking to oblivion. Havill’s disarming frankness is a blink-and-you-miss it gem.
Christopher Godwin’s ‘Doc’ or Batley strikes another note, a palpably dying man who’s trying to stand down, but who’d literally die to cast his vote for the party, despite Lymbery’s and even Dinsdale’s character more anxious for him than zero sum games.
As Gunnar Cauthery’s Peebles the Liberal tells Taylor early on: ‘A Conservative government always eventually falls because they believe themselves entitled to power. And Labour governments always fall…. because they don’t.’
It’s that humanity over any entitlement that’s tested in the final scenes when that careful alliance unravels and as Jim Callaghan notes the minority-party turkeys vote for an early Christmas. Graham’s brilliance is to who the five years by lightning flashes from the whips’ office, so though we get voice-overs and mentions of the Lady, none of this intrudes in the aimiable deadly warfare between the two offices, including invasions, accusations of cheating and even a quiet ‘well played’ from Edwards’ Weatherill.
It’s a world on the cusp of slow change, of muted sexism and gentlemen’s agreements, a world indeed engineering its own extinction and deep-scarred change in society at large.
There’s good work from David Hounslow’s Joe Harper a Whip who realizes he mustn’t break a tradition, and Ed Hughes’ Fred Sylvester the ad-man turned Tory whip who does: making a faux-pas over ’which war’ to the blimpish Esher of Rupert Vansittart – who’s awarded a sudden shaft of humanity as he recalls an appalling experience. It’s typical of Graham to give a highlight each to the ensemble cast.
Giles Taylor gets his turn being suborned by Edwards as he’s visiting the Commons barber, and as first speaker. Matthew Pidgeon’s most characterful role comes as Scottish Nationalist from Ayrshire South, and Tony Turner as the querulous member for Fermanagh. These are stand-outs in their swirl of roles. They’re swelled by an ensemble: Robin Bowerman, Charlie Buckland, Sarah-Jayne Butler, Antony Gabriel, Peter F Gardiner, Fred Lancaster, Andrew McDonald.
There’s moving sudden choruses that punctuate the cut-throat world, an eddying of commonality, of shared traditions, and the extraordinary climax. This production beautifully shot – it cries out for it – has been caught at its apogee, and is vibrant proof as to why it’s been called the play of the decade. Graham’s airborne ballet of consequences and sudden pivots to a single action shot him into the front rank, and our foremost political dramatist.