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The Minerva theatre at Chichester is an intimate space and, in the National Theatre’s production of This House, it is intimacy that is the real key to an excellent evening’s entertainment.
The recreation by James Graham of the hectic, and often dysfunctional, period in the House of Commons in the lead up to the inauguration of the Thatcher Government between 1974-79, is told largely through the activity in the opposing Whips offices. The Labour party is trying to defend its tiny minority over the Tories who themselves are desperate to unseat their rivals. There are any number of devices, close shaves and personality clashes along the way until the denouement in the ‘No Confidence’ debate which eventually heralds Margaret Thatcher’s accession to Prime Minister.
Rae Smith’s set is inspired. The two centres of action are in the Whips offices, alternately switched on and off by Paule Constable’s lighting plot, which are surrounded by the benches of the Commons, themselves ingeniously part peopled by members of the audience. Big Ben looms in the background and this creates a memorable montage and a very clever space for Director Jeremy Herrin to orchestrate his slick production. It is almost farce-like in its reliance on swift entries and tiny cameos, as various ‘ Members’ are called by Mr Speaker, to amplify the heavy work going on in the two offices, and Herrin makes sure that there is not a single pause throughout.
The principals are excellent at creating the aforementioned intimacy in their work. On the Labour side Phil Daniels’ blustering Bob Mellish contrasts with his second half replacement, the more introspective Michael Cocks, played by Kevin Doyle. For the Tories, Malcolm Sinclair gives a fine representation of the aristocratic Humphrey Atkins who epitomises everything that those down the corridor find unacceptable. But it is the performances by Steffan Rhodri as Labour deputy Walter Harrison and Nathaniel Parker as his opposite number Jack Weatherill that stand out above this already high level of performance. They manage to develop a believable relationship of antagonism mixed with sympathy which makes the performance so watchable.
Whether you need to have lived through the period to really appreciate it, and indeed believe it, is open to question, although some aspects are remarkably similar to the political impasse we find ourselves in at the moment, and the European comments, much appreciated by the audience, are remarkably pertinent. Some might see it as a bit like Yes Minister with attitude and indeed it does point up some of the absurdities of our political system. But it never loses sight of the fact that this is real government and by the end, the audience does not know whether to laugh or cry.
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