The Whips office is a world of secrecy. How many of us actually know what the Chief Whip does? James Graham has given us a fly-on-the-wall peek into the Chief Whips office and management of the voting system in the House of Commons.
This type of political play could become mired in the minutiae of politics and lose its entertainment value. No-one wants to go to the theatre and hear a party-political broadcast. This script should be framed, gilded in gold and used as an example of how to combine political drama, comedy and theatricality.
Even though many of us may be too young to remember the 1974 hung Parliament, we do have the more recent 2010 example to draw our experience from and it is this; and Graham’s working class background, that was the engine that drove him to put pen to paper.
To give some historical context; in 1974 Edward Heath called a snap election to try to increase the Conservatives majority. This decision was taken at a time of an all-out miners strike and the Unions giving strong representation to the Government. We hadn’t had a hung parliament since 1929 and even though the Conservatives won more votes than Labour, our voting system recognized that Labour had won more seats. Not enough for a majority though, ‘the scores on the doors’ was Labour 301, Conservatives 207.
With the focus on the Labour Chief Whip Bob Mellish (Phil Daniels) and his Deputy Walter Harrison (Reece Dinsdale), we begin to understand the inner workings of the Chief Whips office. They have an uphill task as every vote has to be fought for, but they do use the gentleman’s agreement ‘pairing system’, which allows them to consult the Tories (who is will now always think of as the Aristotwats), in the shape of Tory Chief Whip Humphrey Atkins (Julian Wadham), and his Deputy Jack Weatherill (Charles Edwards). The behind the doors wheeling and dealing are the focus of the play as these usually unseen bartering techniques of the Whip’s office are displayed.
The set design helped us to imagine we were in the House of Commons, it’s ingenious design by Rae Smith, allowed us to be in Parliament in one scene and then without losing momentum, we were back in the Whips office, then in the lofty heights of Big Ben. The lighting design helped enormous with this, Paule Constable and Paul Anderson allowed the stage to be zoned to create these very different environments. I would not have expected to see a live band in a political play, but ‘Jim and The Wires’ did a fantastic job of giving us some amazing 1970’s Bowie. Five Years sung by Phil Daniels (who MOD fans will always think of as Jimmy Cooper in Quadrophenia, sitting astride a Lambretta); really helped to create the mood of what must have been a chaotic, and electrically charged environment.
The actors appeared to revel in both the tension and comedy of the script, and all gave tremendous performances. The Members Chorus had the challenge of many different dialects to master and carry off, which was done to perfection.
I am pleased to hear that James Graham is using lockdown to continue writing in his words ‘a sort-of-sequel – with an unlikely hero’. I am already waiting with bated breath! I urge you not to miss the opportunity to watch this perfectly crafted political drama.
To watch this play as part of the ‘National Theatre at Home’ season, you will need to move fast as it runs on You Tube from 28th May until 4th June 2020. You can watch by following this link HERE! Please also remember that the National Theatre, like many of our theatres need donations to keep afloat. Please consider making a donation if you can afford to do so, by following this link https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/nt-at-home
Reviewer: Caroline Worswick
Reviewed: 28th May 2020
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★★