When James Graham's play about late 1970s parliamentary shenanigans opened at the Cottesloe last September, I decided to give it a miss. Having finally caught up with it more than six months later on the much bigger Olivier stage, I now realise how wrong I was.
Having sat in the Commons press gallery myself and looked down on the Palace of Varieties for two years at the end of the 1990s, I didn't imagine that a play about parliament could ever rise above the usual cliches and capture the atmosphere of this dysfunctional political zoo. But this one does. Graham's intelligent play is deservedly attracting sellout audiences to the National Theatre's largest stage. Who would have thought that one of the hottest tickets of 2013 might turn out to be a play about political trench warfare at Westminster nearly half a century ago, featuring a roster of political names, most of whom are now forgotten?
What Graham, director Jeremy Herrin and designer Rae Smith have cleverly done is turn the play's potential handicaps into advantages. With a huge list of characters to choose from in the Westminster Ship of Fools, they turn the spotlight away from the officers on the bridge and on to what one of the characters calls 'the engine room' -- the offices of the Conservative and Labour whips. These are the men (they were and are mostly men) who pull the strings, comfort the afflicted and punish the rebellious, ensuring that their MPs turn up to vote. In the late 1970s, Labour clung to office by the tiniest of majorities, sometimes with no majority at all, relying on arm-twisting, plotting and occasional deviousness to maintain the governments of Harold WIlson and James Callaghan in power. The stakes in the British winner-take-all system were very high. When the Conservative opposition finally won a vote of no confidence in 1979 after nearly five years of attritional warfare, it ushered in the era of Margaret Thatcher and 18 years of Conservative rule.
Much has changed at Westminster since then, but mostly on a superficial level; many essential things haven't, and this makes the play a lot more topical than I might have imagined. It's not only the recent death of Thatcher, but the fact that since 2010, for the first time since 1979, we have a hung parliament where no party has an overall majority. When I was a lobby correspondent in the early years of Tony Blair, Labour had a landslide majority; with a new generation of obedient MPs who did and said what their electronic pagers told them, each vote in the Commons was a formality, with only the Lords providing occasional excitement and dissent. God, it's so boring, some of the longer-serving press gallery hacks would exclaim.
Graham has done a huge amount of research, not just read a few old press cuttings, as some playwrights do. He's read all the self-serving autobiographies and interviewed many of the survivors of the 1970s. Because he focuses on the whips, who never speak in the Commons chamber and whose activities go unrecorded in Hansard and in the press, he opens up an unfamiliar angle on the story. Whips such as Walter Harrison and Humphrey Atkins are to Callaghan and Thatcher what Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are to Hamlet. There's a Shakespearean quality to the way the story is told through the eyes of low-life characters and minor players rather than the principal protagonists. Many of the MPs are anonymised by being referred to by their constituency names, not their own. The colourful Norman St John Stevas becomes 'Chelmsford' and Norman Tebbit is 'Chingford', and so on. The play is of course a blend of fact and fiction, rather than a quasi-documentary, and is all the better for that. Bernard 'Jack' Weatherill, one of the Tory whips, emerges as transparently kind and decent, as he was in real life, but in other ways the stage character is different from the real model, who was certainly no toff. Weatherill, although he had once served on the North West Frontier in an Indian army cavalry regiment, was one of the few Tories who had worked with his hands -- he was a Savile Row tailor, and something of a misfit among the knights of the shires on the Conservative benches when he entered parliament. Graham has his Labour opposite numbers cracking jokes about his suits, but Weatherill once told me a much more revealing story. In his first few days as an MP, while visiting the gents' toilets, he overheard one of his Tory colleagues complaining to another: 'Can't think what the place is coming to! They've even let my tailor in as a member'.
One of the aspects of Westminster which has changed since the 1970s is the disappearance of the cohorts of hard-drinking, hard-swearing working class Labour MPs, who were getting thin on the ground even in the late 1990s when I watched from the gallery. By comparison, the Conservative side has changed much less, with the Thatcherite 'garagistes' now sidelined by another generation of Old Etonians under David Cameron. The strength of Graham's play is that it gives a recognisable portrait of a failing institution, not just of individuals. Despite, or perhaps because of, a series of family-friendly reforms under Blair, the Commons is still dysfunctional. It works shorter hours and generally avoids late-night sittings. But it still generates among its inmates feelings of paranoia and powerlessness, and a peculiar kind of tunnel vision that shuts out the outside world. The wider political picture in the real world becomes invisible. Graham lifts up a stone to expose the creatures scuttling around underneath, and I think it is this glimpse into a hidden world that makes the play so popular with audiences.
In a way I'm glad I've seen the play on the Olivier stage, because this space allows the design to come into its own. There's a giant back projection of the clock face of Big Ben, and rows of parliamentary benches which are shared between audience members and the actors. The action is fluent and fluid, switching in a second, with no scenery changes, between the chamber and the backstage offices where the 'usual channels' operate. The complexity of the action is boiled down with utter clarity, and no scene is allowed to drag on; up on the gallery there's even a 1970s prog-rock band, playing excruciatingly awful music on guitars and drums. The 1970s was a bleak decade, as the men's suits with their wide lapels and the hideous women's dresses subtly remind us. My only complaint about this enjoyable and funny production is that the shiny swivel chairs used in the whip's offices are far too modern for the period.