This House has impressive credentials. As a collaboration between the National Theatre, Chichester Festival Theatre, Headlong and Jonathan Church Productions, it’s theatrical kudos rating is sky-high before it has even begun. Not only that, the play garnered rave reviews and met with critical acclaim during its debut in London, playing to packed houses both in the West End and at the National Theatre. Now in Edinburgh and away from familiar territory, This House still manages to pack a punch with theatregoers north of the border.
The scene is the Palace of Westminster in a politically stormy 1970s Britain: a hung parliament with Labour at the helm and the Whips on both sides battling to win over the “odds and sods”. Then there’s the matter of Margaret Thatcher rising through the ranks on the verge of taking power, the Tories building a case for a no-confidence vote, and the “old boys” club gradually being infiltrated with younger blood and women. The ensuing action shows the battles that rage behind the scenes, party strategies and the stereotypes found on the left, right and in the middle. This House is packed with wonderful satire, immensely funny characterisations and marvellous observations of the political system. Much is made of the parallels between then and now, with plenty of referendum references and illustrations of party disarray and disunity.
Those who don’t actively remember this period in history – or who don’t know a great deal about it – may find themselves a little lost and, at times, disinterested. While the play is brilliantly executed with imaginative and immersive staging, popular music and an intelligent script, to get the most of out of it you really do need to have a good deal of knowledge or interest in the political events of this era. One of the many aspects in which this production excels is through its ability to portray the good and bad of each side, without appearing to favour either – something usually unheard of in theatre. Both Labour and Conservative members behave predictably appallingly at times (much to our amusement), but there is some salvation to be found among the rubble. Such a moment comes during a beautiful interaction between the two Chief Whips, where each displays integrity, honour and astounding self-sacrifice in order to do the decent thing by one another. It’s a deeply touching and moving moment that almost has us regaining faith in politicians – briefly.
The play’s South Bank birthplace is just along the water, almost in the shadow of Big Ben, a moment which holds particular relevance and offers a sense of nearness to the action (even when transferred to the nearby West End). Not so in Scotland. The Festival Theatre is a long way away, and our political landscape (and geographical location) is comparatively removed from Westminster, perhaps making This House less on point here. Nevertheless, this is an undoubtedly slick, clever and very high-quality piece of theatre – whatever the location.