It’s the play that should never have attracted an audience. A three-hour-long close inspection of contact between whips’ offices during the dying days of a Labour minority government – written by a playwright who wasn’t even born during the fractious politics of the Seventies he brings to the stage.
But it works. So well, in fact, that This House is making its West End debut after two runs at the National Theatre in London.
Its writer, James Graham, is now an old hand at political theatre and screenwriting at the age of 34. But he doesn’t seem any less excited four years on from the play’s initial run, unable to resist taking a peak at the mock-House of Commons set as he leads us up a narrow staircase backstage at the Garrick Theatre.
More accustomed to the modernity and edge of theatres like the National and Donmar Warehouse, Graham looks slightly out of place in this relic of Victorian theatreland. Somewhere in the backstage warren, we settle in an echoey room containing a disused fireplace and little else. Graham’s outfit, a rumpled blue long-sleeved tee and skinny jeans, highlights his youth – only his smart brown brogues betray the self-styled “political dweeb and dramatist” beneath.
Graham is behind other political hits like Coalition, a 2015 TV drama about the 2010 hung parliament negotiations, Privacy, a production about how technology affects our private lives, and The Vote, a drama set during the final 90 minutes of voting in a polling booth ahead of the 2015 general election – which broadcast live on election night at the exact time it was set.
Malcolm Sinclair, Nathaniel Parker and Ed Hughes playing the Tory whips in This House. Photos: Johan Persson
Phil Daniels and Steffan Rhodri play the Labour whips.
But he made his name with This House, which began in 2012 as an intimate Commons debate chamber replica in the National’s smallest auditorium, then called the Cottesloe. “It’s a fucking stupid pitch!” is how he merrily describes the lengthy piece of political geekery he took to the National. “On paper, it’s not the sexiest of prospects.” But the theatre disagreed.
That was shortly after he had seen the coalition form in May 2010 and wanted to explore Parliament’s awkward history of cross-party deals. Politics has transformed since then. How has Graham’s fond Westminster wonkery held up in 2016, the year of political rage?
“Four years ago, it was definitely a play about hung parliament and that building,” he nods. “Whether it can tolerate cooperation and compromise and multiple party arrangements.”
The Labour whip tries to scrape a majority together.
Graham was convinced that he would have to rework his script to dial down the focus on minority government and dial up his references to party infighting.
“There’s a farce element to this show, there’s a knockabout silliness to it,” he says. “Will it feel like a comedy now? Will the audience feel a greater cynicism? An anger towards a system which maybe felt quite harmless four years ago?”
In the end, he changed nothing in the script. “It just felt wrong, sort of cheap actually,” he says. “I thought it was too tarty, and you have to respect your audience.”
The original script is prescient enough. From references to Scottish independence to Labour deselections by the hard left as a “ticking time-bomb”, there are plenty of parallels for audiences to draw with modern-day British politics.
Labour whips do deals with the “odds and sods” in the Commons bar.
Yet Graham has noticed a new reception to his text from both his cast and audiences, in light of the past six months of political upheaval; a “second dark wave” of laughter following each gag. This is most audible when the Labour whips discuss the prospect of a European referendum with exasperation.
Also poignant is the constituency represented by “the Doc”, an elderly Labour MP whose fate is bound up with the political fate of the country. Throughout This House, he is announced as the “member for Batley” – the seat where the Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered days before the EU referendum. A “tragic irony” that struck Graham the moment he heard the news. “The tragedy centres around the Batley MP who dies to save his party, or tries to,” he says.
This was one of the first backstage discussions when Graham’s new cast (which includes about half of the original company) came together before the Garrick run. “When we got back together, in a way it was a bit like a therapy session . . . after the summer of chaos,” Graham recalls. “It’s a very political company – actors often are very politicised creatures.”
Squaring up in the Labour whips’ office.
Graham wants to cover politics throughout his playwriting life – “40, 50, 60 years, or however long I can survive”, he grins. He is currently working on a TV drama about the EU referendum campaign and has already written a short play about Brexit.
Whether portraying Peter Mandelson’s comical wade through a secret passage beneath Downing Street in Coalition or Ted Heath’s private turmoil in his early play Tory Boyz, Graham’s USP is his ability to see politicians as human. He empathises with the politician, rather than preaching about the politics. Though this “not very fashionable” attitude took a “massive, massive knock” this year, he argues “it’s dangerous, I think it’s unhelpful for our politics to be so cynical”.
This means he generally remains impartial. He calls This House “a neutral look at those people and that system to try and work out if it’s working or not”.
But he is at his most animated when condemning the UK government’s attitude towards the arts. “If I was born ten years later, I don’t think this play would be on,” he grimaces. Graham comes from a working-class background in the old mining town of Mansfield, in Nottinghamshire. “Politics never felt like a London thing, it never felt removed from the street,” he says, recalling all the pits closing by the time he was 11.
Until he was about 15, he had never been to the theatre to see a professional play. He learned about theatre at his school, then the biggest comprehensive in the country. A drama teacher lobbed the shy, awkward young Graham out of his comfort zone and into musicals like Grease, Joseph and Oliver.
“Education is changing; education used to be the one great leveller,” he laments. “You would still get access to work and theatre and art, whether you [were] working-class or went to a private school. That’s clearly changing [to a] culture that the arts have less value and meaning – so I think naturally over the next ten years we’ll see less voices come from those diverse, or less privileged communities, which is devastating.
A band plays David Bowie’s “Five Years” as the government staggers on.
“I know the conversation around this normally centres around posh actors these days, which is an issue, but I think it’s more serious about writers and voices from different backgrounds,” adds Graham, who missed rehearsals for his first couple of plays at west London’s Finborough Theatre because he had to do office work and call centre shifts during the day.
“We’re just denying ourselves access to the widest range possible of stories. Whether that be people of different faith, or class, or race, or geography even. Jesus,” he sighs. At one point during this impassioned outburst, he puts his head in his hands.
“Letting one of the finer things that we do very well in this country – that people abroad actually want to buy and rate us very highly for – to kill that because you just can’t find a place in the school timetable to have an hour a week is so self-destructive, but I think we’re living in a self-destructive age.”
For a dramatist of political crises, James Graham is far from savouring the turmoil ahead.
Anoosh and Stephen interview James Graham on the NS podcast.