This House, set in the 1970s and showing a government hanging on with a threadbare majority, seems extraordinarily prescient in the current political climate.
But James Graham’s play sets out to question the whole parliamentary system rather than a specific moment in history.
Jonathan O’Boyle, co-director of the touring production coming to the Sheffield lyceum next week, explains: “When James wrote it in 2012 he was responding to the Coalition government and that had resonance there and when we did it four years later at Chichester and the West End we were coming out of the European referendum and there is reference (in the play) to the Referendum in the Seventies.
“Now we have Theresa May with a minority government being propped up by the DUP. Every time we have done this it has different resonances in the British political system and how we engage with politics.
“Different things ping out with different audiences.”
The play is partly a reworking of A Majority of One written by Sheffield’s Joe Ashton, MP for Bassetlaw at the time, which ran at the Nottingham Playhouse in 1988
It opens in 1974 as Labour wins power with a slender majority which means every vote counts requiring the whips in both parties to resort to extreme measures.
“The majority of the play takes place in the two whips’ offices and then orbits around the House – the tea room, terrace, bars and the house chamber. It’s really fluid as it moves through the parliamentary term of 1974-9,” continues O’Boyle.
It is very much an ensemble piece with the rare luxury of 19 actors on stage in the production which originated at the National Theatre. Between them they play 66 characters, all MPs.
“One of the devices James has used is that all the MPs are introduced by their constituencies as they are in the House. So the member for Plymouth South is Alan Clark and Rushcliffe is Ken Clarke. Maggie Thatcher is mentioned as Finchley which is usually greeted by boos, or certainly in the North.”
As the play tours to different parts of the country they are finding certain figures mean more to particular audiences.
In the main characters are not famous politicians but the people working behind the scenes in the cause of their respective parties. They get up to all kinds of tricks and ruses as sick or dying MPs are carried through the lobby to register their crucial votes.
Jonathan O’Boyle is listed as co-director with Jeremy Herrin of Headlong who has been responsible for This House since 2012. “I looked after the show in the West End and he asked would I like to direct the tour,” he explains.
He recently directed Pippin, a musical at Southwark Playhouse and the UK premiere of an American play, Rasheeda Speaking, till running at Trafalgar Studios. Next he is going back to the Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester, where Pippin started, to direct the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, Aspects of Love.
O’Boyle who grew up in Derby knows Sheffield well. “I spent a year at Sheffield Theatres as an associate director working with Daniel Evans across the organisation and as a trainee director, learning all the time. I worked on My Fair Lady and This is My Family, Bull and The Village Bike.
“I love Sheffield, the people are so theatre-savvy audiences who respond to things fairly quickly. I think they will lap this up.”
This House is at the Lyceum Theatre from Tuesday to Saturday.