The Parliamentary chaos of the 1970’s – hung parliaments, fragile alliances and lost divisions which predated the dawn of Mrs Thatcher – make for a tale hard to believe now . Even with 2016 Labour in chaos again and rebel-ridden Tories in precarious authority. James Graham wrote this astonishingly perceptive, funny, and thoughtful reconstruction of the mid-70s years, focused on the wrangling in the Whips’ offices and it was first seen in 2010 (Coalition years) in the NT’s little Cottesloe, with the front row seated on green Parliamentary benches. Even then, dazzled by young James Graham’s achievement, I wrote that it would last longer than the half-dozen chaotic years it depicted.
When it moved to the Olivier, and the Speaker’s Procession in full rig came up the central aisle, its meaning suddenly deepened because the pomp reminded us that these furious combatants were actually – gulp! – running a real country, with real people working, striking , living and dying in it. I said this to Nicholas Hytner who mused “Yes, it turned out to be a bigger play than we thought”. So now at last it reaches the West End: brave for a commercial theatre because it needs an enormous cast. Even with the doubling and trebling of numerous roles, there were sixteen players in the Garrick. Jeremy Herrin has them flowing nimbly around an evocative WEstminster stage (Big Ben overhead, a Speaker’s chair reappearing, an iron stair, offices: at one striking point lighting turns it all into the echoing medievalism of Westminster Hall and its angels). Some lucky audience are in the gallery or on benches; sometimes MPs are down by the front row or yelling from boxes.
It still bites, perhaps even more now that Labour is in disarray, the SNP ascendant, and Conservative rebels rolling up their sleeves to destabilize the old order still further. Graham has fun with the old 1970’s dualism, real, in the pre-Blair years: a Tory Chief Whip despising “Foul-mouthed, brutish, trade unionist thugs” , his Labour opponent jeering about “silver spoons in their mouths and rods up their arses”. It is more noticeable though how artfully he acknowledged the blurring which was already under way: Steffan Rhoddri’s Labour deputy chief whip listening to Wagner on his own, NAthaniel Parker’s engagingly smooth Weatherill on the other side finding Coronation Street entertaining, much to the horror of the peerlessly funny silver-fox ur-Tory Sir Humphrey Atkins ( Malcolm Sinclair). Mean while the new Chingford member (Tebbitt!) is winced at as “an egg and chips man” and ever more Labour members are not battered, noble old miners and steelworkers but thrusting young Blairish lawyers.
It’s fabulous drama: the rows, the desperate wooing of the “odds and sods” from the nations and regions, the almost incredible Stonehouse affair, the brief Lib-Lab pact with the preening David Steel, the furious row after the Heseltine mace incident when pairing was suspended and Labour had to wheel in desperately sick MPs to vote and cajole its drunks and recidivists, and a new mother had to come in and breastfeed her new baby, horrifying the prim old-boys’ club that Parliament once was. Capricious minorities and mavericks tormented the whips, one Labour member crossed the floor, 17 died; the supposed government lost no fewer than 57 divisions in the last Parliament.
Graham worked from facts and memoirs and an imagination of great wit and flexibility, catching the sometimes brutal tone of politics (“I’d better go and twist a few more Liberal arms” – “Don’t try too hard, they’re flimsy”.) But it is moving, too: these are – especially on the left, because Labour was so beleaguered – individuals wanting to do their best for the country. Phil Daniels as Bob with his ducktail hairdo and savage sweating catches the angry sincerity of the old left; Weatherill’s relationahip with his opposite number is, in a final moment of decency, touching. And ever in the background comes the reported rise of the member for Finchley and the dawn of her 1980’s. During which, of course, James Graham was born. Another salute to him for this fantastic exercise in pre-natal nostalgia. The small flaws – odd awkward doublings and some really dodgy Northern Irish accents – can’t knock off the fifth star. Honour to it.
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