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Keeping Seventies Britain alive: Charles Edwards in James Graham's "This House" 

Where, I wonder, will political theatre take us in 2013? In 2012, the clear victor was a play that took us through a 40-year time portal, while reveal- ing the eternal verities of Westminster’s little ways. James Graham’s This House at the National exudes attention to detail as it charts the Labour government’s battle for survival from 1974 to 1979, with a minority government, wobbly leaders and the fate of parliamentary votes in the hands of tiny groups of backwoodsmen and puppeteer whips.

We care more about this than we did, per- haps, as the Cleggeron coalition reels uncertainly into the new year and the prospect of outright Tory victory in 2015 recedes. Cracking, unsentimental direction from Jeremy Herrin, who brought such a tender eye to the class, sex and political frissons of the 1960s in David Hare’s South Downs, makes This House shine. The political bruisers are headed by Philip Glenister taking his Life on Mars persona into the knuckle-duster whips’ office with such evident affinity for the period that I half-expected to find David Bowie in the charts and an Audi Quattro revving up outside afterwards.

The National Theatre often gets it in the neck (not least from me) for predictable tracts on global warming, military interventions and a tendency to mistake the Occupy movement for a serious political force. But in staging Howard Brenton’s Never So Good a few years ago and Graham’s work now, it shows a keen understanding of the importance of theatre in keeping political memory and education alive.

This House transfers to the Olivier in February, a deserved boost to the main stage for the work of a writer who, from his plays on Suez and Margaret Thatcher’s formative years, has clung to the unfashionable idea that democratic politics and the people en- gaged in it are interesting—not just when there is a war or scandal to dissect.

Good luck matters in the theatre too and this production had an ill wind blowing in its favour, with the whips’ office at the heart of the action, just as Jack Weatherill’s contemporary avatar, Andrew Mitchell, found his short lease as Conservative chief whip ebbing away at Westminster. “You’re going to fall hard and fast—so start finding things to land on,” warns one of the steely enforcers, a lesson today’s accident-prone coalition dwellers might take to heart.

Meanwhile Nicholas Hytner, the Nation- al’s boss, has been railing about cuts to arts budgets. This is not new—indeed, the task of criticising cuts to the arts comes with the territory of heading a major theatre. I hap- pen to agree with him on the shortsighted- ness of consigning paltry off-cuts from the capital to Britain’s arts-starved regional centres. Not everything can or should emanate from London, which gets a lion’s share of the spending.

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