Rivalry when votes count at all costs in political play This House
PUBLISHED: 14:27 02 May 2018 | UPDATED: 14:32 02 May 2018
A hung parliament and political turmoil as the government tries to cling to power. It's not 2018 but 1974-79, the subject of the biting and timely play This House. We found out more from James Gaddas and Matthew Pidgeon who play rival chief whips.
It’s 1974 and Labour falls short of a majority beginning one of the most turbulent periods of modern British history and they struggle to survive through a hung parliament. Attempting to keep the government in power on a vote by vote basis is the chief whips office, using a mixture of cunning, threats, bribes and underhand tactics to outfox the opposition whips.
This period, notorious for knife-edge votes and MPs being wheeled in to vote on their sick beds, is the subject of James Graham’s biting, energetic and critically-acclaimed play This House, which strips politics down to the practical realities of those behind the scenes who roll up their sleeves, and on occasion bend the rules, to manoeuvre a diverse and conflicting chorus of MPs.
Having premiered at the National Theatre and been a success in the West End, the play, which includes a live band playing everything from David Bowie to The Sex Pistols, has now been revived, offering a fresh perspective at a time when we once again have a hung parliament.
Playing the rival chief whips are James Gaddas as Labour’s Walter Harrison, the tough, former trade union man who ran a fearsome whipping operation, and Matthew Pidgeon as his Tory rival Jack Weatherill, plotting to bring down the government.
This House is an incredibly busy show with people playing multiple characters and numerous costumes changes. Is it fun to be in something so dynamic?
Matthew Pidgeon: It’s both fun and challenging. It certainly takes a while to get into the groove. The back stage ballet of the thing was initially almost more entertaining than what was happening on the stage! It’s crazy with all the people getting changed. This time I’m playing the same character throughout but I was in the original production and I think I played 16 different roles. So I’ve seen it from both sides. I love playing Jack, but there was a lot of fun to be had playing all those smaller roles, a lot of crazy characters with different accents and so on.
James Gaddas: That’s why we’re lucky playing the whips because we don’t change characters. Some of the other guys have multiple costume changes and its pretty hectic. When we first came to rehearse it was incredibly complicated because it’s not just the actors, it’s the crew, the wigs people the dressers, they have all got to be ready and know what they are doing. You only need one person to take a wrong turn for things go awry.
A play about politicians talking in rooms and speaking in the House of Commons could have been dry but it features music, songs and even a dance number?
James Gaddas: It’s got two Bowie songs in it! There is even a bit of Sex Pistols in there and some dancing. There may be some people who think why would I want to go to see play about politics? But it’s only partly about that any way, it is about the period and the relationships and the people.
Matthew Pidgeon: We had the band from very early on, the Bowie songs and the Sex Pistols, so it never felt dry or dull. With some many characters there is a lot going on and a lot of the MPs, people like Heseltine, have licence to be quite big characters. Actually the day we first played it with wigs we could not get through it because it was so funny!
You play rival chief whips. How much did you know much about the role of the whips beforehand?
James Gaddas: I was aware of them like most people, but I wasn’t aware of just how much they do. It’s been fascinating because a lot of the stuff we did early on was finding out exactly what the role was. I met Walter Harrison’s family, which was an honour. One of them gave me a letter that Jack had written to Walter, his retirement letter, with a postscript saying that his happiest times were in the whips office in opposition, which is exactly what this play is about.
Matthew Pidgeon: I didn’t know as much as I should have done. We had people visiting us from the whips offices and we spoke to people like Ann Taylor, who eventually became Labour Chief Whip. We also spoke to people from that period who spoke about Walter and Jack and about some of the shenanigans that they got up to. We also visited parliament and Downing Street. It was an education.
The period covered in the play from 1974-79 was a turbulent political period as the Labour government clung to power. How much did you know about it?
James Gaddas: I was just a kid during that time so I didn’t realise just how tenuous it was for the government. It’s a fascinating period.
Matthew Pidgeon: If you speak to anyone from that era, many of whom became well known later on, people like Jack Straw, they all say that the most alive it felt was during that 1974 to 79 period, because every vote felt vital. So every day you were either trying to bring the government down or keep it going. I suppose retrospectively it’s so fascinating because it is such a pivotal moment in recent British history. The 1979 election was a real sea change and they all knew that whoever got in would also reap the benefits of North Sea oil revenues.
The play shines a light on parliament’s many age-old traditions. There is even a glossary in the programme explaining the parliamentary terms. How much did you know?
Matthew Pidgeon: It’s an extraordinary place. It is easy to knock our parliamentary system, it’s adversarial, we should have a more collegiate atmosphere and so on, but there is also a lot to be said for it. I think you get that in this play. You get the absurdities but also the sense of people really trying their best.
James Gaddas: The rules are not written down and so much of it is tradition. Like the benches are exactly two sword width apart, and the fact that nobody dies in the palace, so even Airey Neave who was blown up, wasn’t pronounced dead until he got over Westminster Bridge. A lot of them are archaic things but they make the house what it is. I suppose some of it is over the top, but things like the Mace being swung around by Michael Heseltine make great theatre.
There are some extraordinary stories including people in hiding in cupboards and secret meetings in Big Ben. Is it all true?
Matthew Pidgeon: They are all true stories. Like wheeling people in on stretches, being brought to vote in a very bad way, sometimes not clear that they were even still with us. But there are also lots of things that we haven’t put in. There is an incident in the play where Walter crushes an MP’s hand. That is based on the true story, but it wasn’t his hand that was being squeezed!
It has been revived by writer James Graham at a time when we again have a hung parliament. Are there are parallels between then and now?
James Gaddas: Very much so and I know that James has put in a few lines that are little pointers to current politics.
Matthew Pidgeon: It’s amazing some of the parallels now we have a hung parliament being propped up by Irish MPs. Also the issues of women MPs are dealt with in the play, which is very much of contemporary relevance. All these different subjects that seem very current seem jump out at you.
The play details the decision by Walter not to take up an offer by Jack to stick to a vote pairing agreement, meaning that the government lost a confidence vote, by one, when they could have tied…
James Gaddas: When this actually happened it was down to one vote and he would have effectively kept Labour in government, it’s an incredible thing to do. But there was so much mutual respect, and Walter knew that if he did it his career was over. We tend to think it is so adversarial, but actually there was a bond and a respect.
Many MPs are only referred to by their constituency names. Is it difficult to remember them all?
James Gaddas: Fortunately we never have to call them out. It’s the guys playing the speakers who have to do that and it is pretty daunting. I’ve got about three to name check and that’s enough for me. The audience, especially an older audience, are quick to pick up on who certain people are though, like Heseltine or Norman Singen Stevas, or, of course, when the Member for Finchley is first mentioned, there is a buzz of recognition that people know its Margaret Thatcher.
The production includes the chance to sit in the government benches on stage. What is it like to have audience members on stage?
James Gaddas: Some people really get into it and start joining in the voting. Some complain ‘I shouldn’t be on this side of the stage, I’m on the Tory side’. As an actor it is quite strange, because they are right there, really close up. It’s almost like theatre in the round, but much closer. I think it adds to it. It’s all fun.
• This House, Norwich Theatre Royal from May 8-12, 7.30pm, 2.30pm May 10/12, £28.50-£8, 01603 630000, theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk