Political drama takes centre stage in the touring production of This House, currently at Birmingham Repertory Theatre. It's the 1970s and Labour holds Parliament by a slim majority so slim that every vote counts for every decision. The Conservative party is determined to block the left at every step and it's only by winning alliances and shifting policies that Labour can cling onto power.
James Graham's play, which was a huge hit at London's National Theatre and Chichester Festival Theatre before touring, takes us into the heart of government and opens the door on Parliament. But instead of focussing on the party leaders he takes us into the office of the party whips responsible for managing party discipline and votes.
On one side of the stage, designed by Rae Smith, we are in the Labour engine room and on the other it's the Tories but when both sides are as conniving as each other there is little to tell between them.
James Gaddas and Matthew Pidgeon. Credit Johan Persson
Directed by Jeremy Herrin and Jonathan O'Boyle, there's no let-up in the tension despite the production running to nearly three hours including an interval. The jockeying for power, the secret discussions in all manner of hidden spaces in Parliament, the deals agreed are all the bread and butter of government.
What makes Graham's play so sharp is that all of the politicians know how grubby their hands are and frequently question the rights and wrongs of politics. But they also set that against the time-honoured traditions of British democracy so that while the play shows the faults in the British political system, it sets this in a historical framework with a fond nod to tradition.
There are strong performances throughout with many of the cast switching roles as the drama progresses. James Gaddas is the driven Walter Harrison, determined to keep Labour as the decision-makers until even he is forced to face a moment of truth. His counterpart, Jack Weatherill, is played with devious mastery by Matthew Pidgeon but again we see humanity when the chips really are down.
Stephen Critchlow and the cast of This House. Credit Johan Persson
There are some lovely cameos Louise Ludgate is brilliant as the indomitable Audrey Wise who refuses to bend her principles while also playing a loving Lady Batley who tries to protect her ailing husband from the rat race. Orlando Wells plays a slightly deranged John Stonehouse, the Walsall MP who faked his own death.
Smith's set recreates the house very cleverly with audience members making up some of the MPs. Looming over it all is the face of Big Ben which reminds us of the history of Parliament while also counting down the Labour government's time in power.
There is so much going on in This House that it would benefit from a second viewing. At the beginning of the performance, some of the dialogue was also hard to catch, so a second go at those scenes would also be useful.
Audiences and writers will draw comparisons between the Parliaments of the 1970s and today and that's not surprising. When it comes to keeping power, politics has always been a murky business.