Westminster is in crisis. A minority government is in disarray, and with the country feeling the brunt of the political fall-out, don’t look like being in office for long. If such a scenario sounds too close for comfort just now, bear in mind that it is a description of the real-life plot to This House, James Graham’s history-based play, which was first seen at the National Theatre in London in 2012, and which arrives in Edinburgh tonight as part of its current UK tour.
This House isn’t about now, although it might as well be. Historically, however, Graham’s play is set between 1974 and 1979, from the UK General Election that saw a hung parliament under Labour Party leader Harold Wilson, to the vote of no confidence in Wilson’s successor James Callaghan. It was the latter event which effectively ushered in Margaret Thatcher’s landslide first term victory, changing the landscape of British politics ever after.
“I’d always wanted to understand the organisation of parliament and how it works,” Graham says of the roots to the play. “It’s this strange world full of all these arcane rituals that governs us, and I wanted to look at what goes on behind all that.”
With this in mind, while there are plenty of familiar names in This House, with some 60 MPs passing through, Graham body-swerves both documentary and full-on history play to focus on the back room negotiations between party whips.
“I started writing the play during the hung parliament in 2010,” he says. “It was the first hung parliament in nearly forty years, and I thought it might be a useful equivalent to look at what happened in-between. It was an absolutely insane period of political history. 70 MPs died from exhaustion.
“When I started looking into it, I expected lots of stories of skulduggery, and there was plenty of that from all sides, not just from Labour and the Tories, but from the Scottish National Party and the Welsh National Party, when even a party’s single MP got to wield more power than normal. There was a lot of childishness as well, when 50 MPs hid in the Guy Fawkes Chamber. What I wasn’t expecting was a surprising capacity for decency and humour, and this kind of incredible bromance between the opposing whips that culminated in this incredible thing they did for each other on the night of the vote of no confidence.”
Graham has previous form reimagining iconic real life moments such as those depicted in This House for the stage. This suggests they are dramatic cat-nip for him to transform into modern day myth. Over the last year alone, plays by Graham produced include Ink, which looks at Rupert Murdoch’s takeover and transformation of the Sun newspaper.
In a slightly different vein, Quiz dramatizes events surrounding the appearance in 2003 of army major Charles Ingram on TV game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, and his subsequent conviction for cheating by way of a coughing accomplice in the audience.
Prior to this, Monster Raving Loony looked at the life of Screaming Lord Sutch, the first generation rock and roller whose absurdist political party brightened up many a general election, providing a home for a disaffected if eccentric minority down the decades. Two years before, The Angry Brigade looked at the 1970s anarchist terrorist cell based in Stoke Newington. All of which suggests that life really is stranger than fiction.
“I hope it’s not because I don’t have any imagination,” says Graham, “but these are all incredibly human stories, which I hope mean something beyond their immediate setting.”
Last year Graham wrote Labour of Love, a comedy that charts the so-called modernisation of the Labour Party over twenty-five years seen through the eyes of an ambitious MP and his idealistic constituency agent. As with This House, Labour of Love was directed by Jeremy Herrin. In 2015, The Vote, set in a London polling station, was broadcast live on TV on the night of that year’s UK General Election. Just opened in January of this year is The Culture, a farce based around Hull’s year in 2017 as UK City of Culture which, while a fictional scenario, effectively bites the bureaucratic hand that feeds it.
Born in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire in 1982, as one of that era’s generation of Thatcher’s children, Graham grew up watching television drama, which, while the golden era of Play for Today and socially conscious state of the nation plays had passed, remained solid enough for him to want to tell stories of his own. He started acting in plays at Ashfield Comprehensive School before studying at the University of Hull. While still in his early twenties, he brought his first play, the Miners’ Strike based Coal Not Dole, to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
“That was the first time I ever invited an audience in to see anything I’d written,” says Graham. “It gave me a huge amount of confidence to call myself a playwright.”
Graham worked on the stage door at Nottingham Playhouse, and started sending plays out on spec. One of these was spotted by the Finborough, the tiny London theatre which subsequently premiered four of Graham’s early plays. Even then, the titles – Eden’s Empire; Sons of York - are telling about where his interests lay. The equally telling Tory Boyz appeared at Soho Theatre in 2008.
A decade on, and given the current climate, Graham should have plenty of material for whatever he writes next about the state we’re in. One such notion is to pen something inspired by the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.
“It’s an aspiration,” he says. “I did a radio play that imagined a victory for the Yes vote, and I imagined David Cameron and Alex Salmond carving out the kingdom. Whether it ends up as a stage play or a TV drama, I don’t know yet.”
As for the real life future, again, it feels stranger than fiction.
“Everything’s changing so quickly,” says Graham, “and all the political sacred cows are being slaughtered. As a person I find that quite frightening. As a playwright it’s quite exciting.”
When This House first appeared, it attracted audiences that at various points included former Tory chancellor George Osborne and ex Labour leader Ed Miliband. Moving out of metropolitan bubble where such big-wigs reside should give the play a fresh edge which Graham is looking forward to.
I’m trying to catch This House wherever I can right across the country,” he says. “It’s like a kind of anthropological experiment, to see how people react depending on where we are, which I think will be quite different to how London audiences reacted.”
While many in the audience will be too young to have lived through the era depicted in the play, part of its power comes from dramatising a world that is familiar from the live TV feeds it pre-dates, but which also appears to be ever so slightly archaic.
The reason I like writing about the 1970s is because it was so dramatic, and Britain at that time was at a crossroads,” says Graham. “The post-war consensus was still in place, but it was being challenged, and things went into this new political direction. That’s starting to end now, and with everything that’s going on, we’re deciding which way we want to go.
"That’s the beauty of history. The no confidence vote that happened in 1979 was because of one person not being there to vote, and that completely changed the course of how things were supposed to be mapped out. And who knows? Maybe we’re going into a similar sort of period where something like that could happen again.”
This House, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, March 27-31.