If today’s British voters are all too aware of the travails of coalition government, James Graham’s astute, funny and hugely enjoyable new play considers the alternative. He goes back to 1974, when a hung parliament resulted not in a coalition, but a minority Labour government: a scenario that meant every bill was a battleground and every vote hung on the party whips’ ability to rally their meagre troops. And it is the whips’ story that Graham elects to tell, plunging us pell-mell into the engine room of the political machine.
Here, democracy in action comes down to haggling and sharp tactics, as the opposing whips rattle around the corridors of power running stray MPs to ground. Ann Taylor (Lauren O’Neil), the lone female in the Labour whips’ office, is surprised to be handed a screwdriver on her arrival, with which to “flush out” individuals who might be indisposed when the division bell (signalling a vote) is sounded.
There’s tremendous fun here, as Graham contrasts the ancient rituals of parliament with the grubby realities of party politics. The Labour whips, all cheap suits and kipper ties, squeal with delight, like children given the run of a sweetshop, when they first set foot in the government office. The Conservatives, polished and disdainful, sulk and grumble as they are banished to the shabbier confines of the opposition. There’s plenty of whip-crack humour and a great relish for the absurd, as each side tries to reel in its colourful, rebellious and bedridden backbenchers. But things become more brutal when one side is deemed to have cheated.
Director Jeremy Herrin pulls against factual overload with a high-energy production that conveys a sense of frenzied limbo. Rae Smith’s pleasing design reproduces the chamber of the House of Commons, with the audience sitting on opposing benches, underscoring the play’s points about adversarial politics. Meanwhile angry 1970s music from a live band reminds us of the vast economic, industrial and social changes underpinning this Westminster farce.
Graham explores fault-lines: where the thrill of power runs into powerlessness in office; where the nobility of democracy is undermined by human frailties. But his biggest interest is the human drama: in a system of government that ultimately depends on the number of bodies in a room. His central characters are vividly, likeably detailed, brought to life by an excellent ensemble, in which Philip Glenister as Labour’s blunt Walter Harrison and Charles Edwards as the Tories’ suave Bernard Weatherill particularly shine.
The play is too long, too busy and hampered in places by stereotype. But it remains entertaining and becomes, as 1979 approaches, increasingly moving. This ramshackle scenario is the end of an era, these men and their labours the prelude to what comes next. The biggest character is never seen but looms large over everything: Mrs Thatcher, waiting in the wings.