By James Graham
Directed by Jeremy Herrin
Venue: Cottesloe Theatre
Date: Thursday 18th October 2012
I enjoyed this play a lot. I would have enjoyed it more if the seat layout hadn’t involved a lot of twisting to see the action, leaving me with a sore neck – the transfer to the Olivier next year should make things easier. The action spanned the troubled years of the 1970s between Heath and Thatcher’s governments, when Labour whips had to use every trick in the book and invent a few new ones to hang on to power. I felt I knew too much and too little simultaneously – too much to be surprised by the events and too little to follow some of the fast-flowing short scenes. The use of the MPs’ constituency names instead of their personal names was another drawback, although I was pleased to find I remembered more of these than I expected.
The set was basically the House of Commons debating chamber. There were two long rows of green seats on either side of a central space, with cross benches at the main entrance and the speaker’s chair at the far end. Down the centre were situated the two whips’ offices with the Government one nearer the Speaker. A corridor ran across the middle of the stage, and the narrow gaps between the offices and the front benches were also used as corridors. There were balconies on two levels which gave some extra acting points, and at the far end there was a large image of the clock face of Big Ben with a spiral staircase leading down in the far right corner. The Speaker’s chair could be rotated to give a pub dartboard and other locations, and they used the whole space very creatively for all sorts of other locations although the majority of the action took place in the Palace of Westminster. The band was located by Big Ben, on the left of the balcony.
The political events are a matter of record, so I won’t repeat them here. The play started with a musical number, and involved a lot of MPs and the Speaker doing a processional dance along the stage until the Speaker arrived at his chair and sat down. The Speaker mainly stayed in his chair, announcing each MP (by constituency) as they joined the action and providing the knocking sound when MPs were knocking on doors. The actor had to disappear occasionally to play another part, but the Speaker’s presence was a strong one in both halves.
The two sets of whips were introduced to us, and each team had a newcomer which is always useful for introductions and explanations. We were already aware of the whips’ role in government at that time so it wasn’t difficult to follow, but I found I was losing some of the dialogue, especially when the action was down the other end, which didn’t help. The relationship between the two groups deteriorated as things became more and more difficult for the Labour government, and some ‘cheating’ by the Labour whips to win one particular vote brought about total war. No more pairing meant that all MPs had to be physically present (and preferably alive) in the Palace for their vote to count, and with a slender or no majority the Labour whips had to work flat out to keep their government’s head above water. Losing John Stonehouse to an apparent drowning didn’t help, and they staged that very nicely.
With the others off stage, Stonehouse stood at one end of the central strip and took his shirt and trousers off; he was wearing red underpants, a party man to the last. From the other end a group of actors brought on a white sheet to represent the water, and as the music played Storehouse walked forward onto it, finding the hole in the centre. As the sheet was lifted up, he waded, then swam, and then the tempo became more urgent and he was being thrown around, stepping up onto the chairs as he was gradually swept along and disappearing under the waves as he left the stage. This was nicely done, and with several other deaths taking place during the play, they set up a convention of the dead walking out of that same door while a light shone through it and some mist curled round the sides.
Of course, nobody ever dies in the Palace, so the tradition is to get the body off site pdq and declare the death as having happened elsewhere. One death actually did happen elsewhere. Having caused the original problem which lost them access to pairing, Walter Harrison had to face a tough dilemma during the run-up to the final vote of no confidence in the Labour Government. One old MP whose health was really bad would come and vote for them, but he probably wouldn’t make it out of the Palace alive. His wife wanted him left in peace, while the MP himself wanted to do his duty. The government was down one vote – what to do? In the end, the whips chose to leave him alone, the government lost by one vote, and Maggie Thatcher was returned to power with a large majority.
Along the way there was a lot of manoeuvring, manipulation and negotiation, some of which was very entertaining. I liked David’s Steel’s comment about why Labour and the Conservatives lose elections, and I suspect I would have liked more of the Irish contingent’s comments if I could have understood them – the accents were a bit variable and hard to follow. Despite the setting there were some strong female characters in the mix, and I liked the way the only female Labour whip swore at an intrusion by a Tory whip late in the play. The language was strong at times, but entirely appropriate in my view, and didn’t give either of us any problems.
I did find the overall structure with a lot of very short scenes made it hard to get any momentum going, and I also didn’t care much about any of the characters. Phil Daniels was good as Bob Mellish, the original Chief whip who had to resign after backing the wrong man in the Labour leadership election which Callaghan won. As he’d been given some numbers by Walter Harrison on which he’d based his choice, it was clear that Walter was staging a coup of his own, and his subsequent frustration at not getting the promotion he was after was richly deserved. Phil Daniels came back to sing a song in the second half up on the balcony, shortly after the beginning as I remember.
The second half began with the election of a new Speaker. The previous one stood by the door, surveying the crowd, and then there was a pretend chase with the new incumbent being dragged to the chair and given his gown and wig, after which it was handshakes all round and this new Speaker took charge. I’m not sure now which of the Speakers had the rant about Heseltine’s mace-waving, but it was good fun. Apparently the mace had been replaced the wrong way round and so Parliament couldn’t sit until it was replaced properly, a job reserved for one particular official. Talk about demarcation disputes!
I very much liked Redditch’s ranting complaint about his constituency; his comment “it’s Birmingham” was very funny – no offence to Redditch. Another excellent scene involved Coventry SW being penalised for some offence which I don’t remember. She came down to the whips’ office, apparently to write a letter of apology, but instead took her time to count out the exact amount of the fine, snapped her handbag shut and left the room. The whips were silent until Walter’s approving comment got things moving again.
The performances were all excellent, and with most of the actors having to swap character rapidly there were a lot of props sitting back stage to help with the quick changes. Phil Daniels (Bob Mellish) and Philip Glenister (Walter Harrison) gave two strong central performances, matched by Vincent Franklin as Michael Cocks, who took over as chief whip once Bob Mellish left. For the Tory side, Julian Wadham and Charles Edwards were suitably patrician as Humphrey Atkins and Jack Weatherill, with plenty of other posh types swanning in and out of their office during the play. I was surprised to see Norman Tebbit as a dandy, camping his way around the Commons, but it was entertaining, and may have been a reasonable portrayal for all I know.
The image of the clock face was important during the play. Michael Cocks liked to visit the clock when Parliament rose, and there were a few scenes where he did this, giving us some extra background information in the process. The first half ended with such a visit, and it was the moment when the mechanism broke, with the ominous silence sounding louder than the chimes. The play’s final image was of Cocks standing on the balcony looking at the clock as the lights went out.
There was obviously a lot more to the play than these few snippets I’ve noted down here, but this gives a flavour of the performance. I would be interested to see it when it transfers to the bigger space to see how they re-stage it, and it was enjoyable enough to warrant a second trip – we’ll see if we can fit it in.
© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me