This House is a timely and relevant political comedy, exploring Westminster and the 1974 hung Parliament. In the run up to the General Election, pressure mounts as squabbling whips attempt to attract key regional votes. As it becomes clear that the results will be closely balanced, the play tracks the formation, perils, and consequences of a coalition government — including the compromises, conflicts, and power games needed to win control of Parliament.
One Sunday morning, I sat in on rehearsals with the cast and crew of This House at the Oxford Union to find out a bit more about Clarendon Production’s version of James Graham’s sensational play.
PART I: CREW (and a bit of cast)
Why did you choose to put on This House?
Ava (producer): The Union actually came to us with This House. I think about 10 years ago, the Union used to do a play almost every year in the chamber, and Charlie wanted to revive this tradition with his presidency this—
Lucas (director): With the 200th anniversary of the Union—
Ava: Yeah, so he chose the play ‘This House’ by James Graham, which is kind of the perfect play to put on at the union because it’s so political and being in that space — in the chamber — since it’s based on the House of Commons, so that really adds this perfect dynamic to it. It’s really exciting to be back in the union and using that amazing space for some drama instead of for some politics.
What drew you to audition for the cast of the play?
Caitlin: I think definitely the space was something that drew me in because I hadn’t really heard of a play being put on at the union (…) I also was drawn to the fact that it was going to be a big cast and I would be working with lots of different people and that was something that was quite exciting.
Ava: Yeah, we’ve got 14 people,
Lucas: which is a large cast by OUDS standards, and they’re all fabulous!
Caitlin: Yeah, they’re all so nice.
Lucas: As Caitlin has said, the scale of the production — it’s quite an ambitious show (…) Its timeliness as well, I think is very interesting. I suppose it could have appeared at any time in the last ten years really, but it really suits our current political climate — as a play which I suppose relishes the grubby reality of politics instead of just putting politicians in the pillory for their inconsistencies and failures, it’s one that really appreciates it.
Ava: And I love James Graham (…) I just love the way he brings the audience through these quite confusing political machinations but it makes it so clear what is going on without being condescending. So yeah, I think he’s a really talented writer so it’s lovely to put this play on.
Lucas: I suppose he’s really good in that regard because at the centre of the play is this profound belief in the political process, the parliamentary system. Underneath all the kind of wrangling and wheeling and dealing, there is this established belief in the strength of parliamentary democracy. I think that really resonates.
We’ve kind of touched on this already, but were there lessons you’ve personally taken from this play having worked on it?
Caitlin: Definitely learning more about the political system and its inner workings. But also, I think it was really humbling from the position of a woman. This is set in the 70s, there’s a moment where we touch on how women couldn’t breastfeed in the house, and if we hadn’t cast this gender blind, then I think it would’ve been mainly dominated by men. In the play, the fact that one of the characters is a woman is a massive deal. And I think that I sometimes have to remind myself because we’ll be in rehearsals and I’ll look around and think “okay, yes we have a lot of women involved in this project but that’s because we’ve chosen to make that change” which I think is really refreshing. For example, I play a man, but I obviously am not—
Lucas: —Caitlin plays our lead, Humphrey Atkins. We thought it would be a bit revisionist to change it to Humphrina or something.
Ava: For me it was a period of politics that I really knew nothing about. And (…) well, can I talk about the end? The vote of no confidence?
Lucas: Well, I suppose it’s history isn’t it, so there are, unfortunately, spoilers.
Ava: Well, it basically shows the run up to how Margaret Thatcher comes to power. It was quite shocking to discover that in this way… but I guess stay tuned!
Lucas: It stretches from 1974, to the end of 1979, right from the fall of Ted Heath’s government to the rise of Thatcher. So it’s got this massive scope — so much to do in two hours on stage. I think that will be a really interesting thing for people to come and see (…) Please come and see our show!
Is there anything you hope that your audience will take away from your version of This House?
Lucas: I think this play offers a really nuanced portrayal of what happens ‘behind the scenes’ as such, whilst still maintaining that satiric verve — it’s a funny play — so I think, treading that balance between being eye-opening but at the same time keeping it fun and enjoyable I think it treads the line really well.
Caitlin: I think it does a really good job of critiquing bad decisions that were made whilst also noting that this job has taken over this person’s entire life. Even if you are critiquing them, you understand a bit more about how much this job has taken over everything else in their life.
Ava: So, when Lucas and I were originally talking about how to put it on, one of the things we kept in mind was to not lean too heavily into stereotyping Conservatives vs. Labour, and how we were going to portray those whips. I think it will be interesting to see what the audience does take away from it in who they side with at different points in the play, because I think you really change allegiances throughout.
Lucas: Or, if anything, at the end of the play you reach a point where you no longer see sides as much as individuals.
Caitlin: Completely true, there are a number of people in both parties that you find you actually like.
Ava: I agree, I think the labels of Conservative vs. Labour become less important as you go on.
So, this is a fill-in-the-gap question. ‘If you like X you’ll like This House.‘
Lucas: If you like The Thick of It then you’ll like This House—
Ava: —the amount of times Lucas has mentioned The Thick of It during rehearsals—
Lucas: I occasionally like to direct through references. So like “It’s giving very… Season 2”. I don’t want to discredit myself publicly, but you know, yeah, I have been guilty of that.
Caitlin: If you like Have I got News for you you’ll like This House.
Ava: I’d say also, I guess it’s not quite the same industry but, if you like Succession — that kind of high-powered, taking you through these kinds of complicated twists and turns in a really funny way, and all these people are kind of awful but in a fun way.
Do you have a favourite line from the play?
Caitlin, Lucas, Ava (in unison): There’s so many!
Lucas: Well so many of them require context as well — they’ll make sense in the grand scheme of things but ..
Caitlin: I have one — it’s not a favourite line, it’s more like three (…) So, he says he doesn’t like his office and says “there’s this ugly painted thing in there” and I reply “that’s the member for Gloucester, Colonel, he’s sharing your room”, and that always makes me chuckle.
Lucas: It’s also the obscene kind of situations we find ourselves in. I mean, Midway through act 1 Caitlin is just firing a gun in the Houses of Parliament.
KM: As you do.
Lucas: As one does! Funnily enough they did use to have a shooting range, but I think apparently because it kind of reflected too much of the landed gentry vibes that was gotten rid of.
Yep, I think maybe we might be fine without that.
Lucas: Oh Boris with a gun (…) an image I don’t want to think about (…) But also worth noting it’s very profane as well — it’s a naughty, naughty play!
This is more of a personal question but, well, what’s next for you? Anything to plug?
Lucas: Not currently, but there are thoughts.
Ava: Lucas and I were kind of brought together in this and we started a production company together; Clarendon Productions, and we found, quite luckily, that we work really well together so that’s really nice.
So, I’m hearing that there are things in the pipeline?
Lucas: There may be!
How exciting! Well, that’s pretty much it. Is there anything else you’d like the audience to know?
Caitlin: The only thing I would say is that, and this is nothing to do with the play itself but, it’s just been so fun, it’s just been really nice because everyone is so talented, really talented — like it’s quite scary, and the crew, cast, everyone is just lovely. Honestly, I do look forward to rehearsals even if I’m waking up early on a Sunday morning and I’m really hungover, I’ll be there.
Lucas: Yeah, I have been testing the limits of that punctuality!
Caitlin: But genuinely, it’s been so fun, and I’m going to miss it.
Lucas: And also, come to the last night — we’re having a meet and greet with John Major.
Ava: He’s going to come watch the play. We hope.
Lucas: Well, that’s pending.
PART II: THE CAST (or at least some of them)
Note to reader: these interviews are more of a hodge podge of a few conversations with various cast members conducted in the moments between the rehearsing of scenes. For the slightly chaotic formatting that follows, I can only apologise.
KM: First of all, who are you?
Misha: I’m Misha, I’m a second year PPEist at Exeter, and for the duration of the play I am various different MP’s because I’m part of the Members Chorus as it’s called, which is a sort of amalgamation of 20 or so MPs that 6 of us are sharing the parts of.
Floss: I’m Floss, I do English and German and I’m a first year at Catz, and I play several different MPs, one of which gets to say “breasts” in the union, which I’m super excited about.
So, what drew you to This House?
Floss: Well, I’ve worked with Lucas before. He was assistant director on Blithe Spirit which I was in last term and I really admire the way he works, and I like the play, so I was just kind of like, ok cool!
And what do you hope the audience takes away from seeing your version of This House?
Floss: I want the audience to have a good time, and to be able to appreciate the amount of effort and time that has gone into this, but also just for people to see how incredibly talented everyone involved is.
Do you have a favourite line in the show?
Misha: There’s a fantastic one that Purav delivers quite early in the play where he’s talking about how he hates this constituency that he’s been sorted with, Redditch, known for their needle manufacturing, and he fantastically delivers the line “you can’t find a haystack in Redditch because of all the fucking needles!”
Do you have a favourite moment from rehearsals and working on the show?
You’re going to have to expand on that.
Misha: Well, we had a game of zip-zap-boing, you know the one- you do your zaps, you do your boings and then you gradually whittle yourselves down to two and in order to decide who’s to win of the two, because you can’t zip zap boing one-on-one… that would be ludicrous, so—
Floss: —that sounds like a euphemism.
Misha: —and so to decide the winner of the two, you get down on your hands and knees—
Oh you do, do you?
Misha: —you face off, and you take your turns mooing at each other, and the first person to break loses.
Question number one, who are you?
Alex: Oh, that is a deep philosophical question to start us off, who am I? Who am I. I’m Alex, I’m a second year at New College, I play Bob Mellish who’s the Labour Chief Whip in Act 1, so yeah, having a good time of it, you know?
Ella: Ella Cradock, also New College, French and German, and playing Michael Cocks, who — spoiler alert — eventually becomes the Labour Chief Whip.
Alex: News to me.
Have you learnt anything from your time on This House?
Alex: Well, I’ve learnt my lines or something like that.
Hey, would you like to introduce yourself?
Lydia: Hello, my name’s Lydia, my pronouns are she/her and I’m part of the members’ chorus for this play.
What have you learnt from being part of the show?
Lydia: I’ve learnt about what happened in the 1970s in parliament. I didn’t know that this scandal occurred. I’ve learnt that the debate chamber is quite a cold room.
All equally important pieces of information! So, do you have a favourite line from the show?
Ella: I do really like “she’s a woman, Walter, not an invalid.” I think that’s great, it makes me giggle.
What do you hope audiences will take away from This House?
Ella: Historically, you definitely learn something, and yeah, it’s just a bit of fun, having a look at how the government works.
Alex: I hope they’ll enjoy it.
This House is on at The Oxford Union Chamber from Monday 6th March to Wednesday 8th and will be showing each night 7:30 pm – 10:00 pm. Union membership is not needed to book tickets and attend this event.