You enter the Cottesloe chamber and take your seats on green leather benches, with the Speaker's chair at the head of the room and a large projection of Big Ben looming overhead. Yes, you are in the mother of all parliaments for the mother of all sessions.
For this is the House of Commons, invaded by the quarrelsome party whips in the period from 1974 to the advent of Mrs Thatcher, an era of hung parliaments, the wounded governments of Heath, Wilson and Callaghan, the Lib/Lab alliance, the three-day week and John Stonehouse.
John who? James Graham’s lively play, directed by Jeremy Herrin as a sort of violent political cabaret, is flecked with surreal sequences, such as the fake suicide of that disgraced former postmaster general and Czech spy on a Miami beach, a swaying dance ensemble of new-term MPs, a punch-up at the despatch box, the wheeling in of bed-bound invalids to make up the vote, and a Labour turncoat crossing the floor (“Everyone needs somewhere to go”).
There were only ever one or two votes between the major parties, which meant the whips offices were up to all sorts of skulduggery with minority party members, as well as their own opposite numbers; these deals and machinations are driven by acute class enmity fuelled by late-night whisky until, to almost universal all-round relief, the unmistakeable voice of Robin Day announces the election victory of Margaret Thatcher with a working majority.
It’s no great surprise, and deeply depressing, to find that our democracy is run in such a chaotic and patched-up system, but too much of the detail – “that stuff about Thorpe,” for instance – will engage only political wonks and historians, and the “behind the scenes” thrust and parry of it all fails to imply the consequences in the country at large; but that is no doubt the point.
One or two of the internal stories, such as the arrival of Ann Taylor (lovely Lauren O'Neil) in the hard-swearing, “aristotwat”-baiting Labour whips office, are left to hang out and dry, while that old bruiser Bob Mellish (Andrew Frame standing in for the recently bereaved Phil Daniels) disappears altogether at the interval.
Most of the MPs are referred to by constituency only, but Philip Glenister as Walter Harrison and Richard Ridings as a gargantuan Joe Harper make a colourful pair of class warriors on the Labour side, with Julian Wadham as an ultra-smooth Humphrey Atkins and Charles Edwards as Jack (Bernard) Weatherill, later a famous Speaker, exuding an oily but always pragmatic determination for the party opposite.
I should imagine the play is far more entertaining than most days in the Commons; the design of Rae Smith, the lighting of Paule Constable and choreography of Scott Ambler (not to mention the rock music) all play their part in a show that certainly makes vivid use of the Cottesloe and confirms Graham as a playwright to watch.