What inspired you to write This House?
I was desperate to try and understand that building – Parliament. One of the most famous exteriors in the world, but hardly any of us know how it’s run on the inside, not really. The old rituals and ancients customs that define our parliamentary democracy – the template for most of the world.
Also, the surprise hung parliament in 2010 was a key motivator. It gave me a sense of urgency, an answer to the question most writers always ask of their plays: why now? Historically, hung parliaments are rare, and this was the first in my lifetime. It felt exciting to go back to the last one, and learn.
How long did it take you to research This House?
A long time! There weren’t many books on this parliamentary period, no one had really collated together all the stories, anecdotes and evidence into one place. Also, the Whips have a code of silence. They’re not meant to do interviews, publish memoirs, anything. So it was an uphill struggle. I often felt more like a journalist than a playwright. But that also made it feel more important.
Which MP’s did you get to meet that were there at the time the play is set?
I was lucky enough to meet some characters in the play – like Ann Taylor, and Walter Harrison. Ann was, I think even she’d admit, not quite convinced about talking to me at first. Understandably. Most plays or dramas about politicians are not exactly flattering. But I was determined to be fair, to humanise politicians in order to better understand them. Since then, she has been one of the biggest advocates of the play, coming in to help us in rehearsals, and feeding into the script. And Walter Harrison. What to say? He was a legend to all who knew him. He died a couple of days after we opened at the National, but was well enough to see the reviews. I was told by his family that it pleased him to see the story being told. The time I spent with him at his home, looking at his photos, hearing his stories, was incomparable.
There’s then the other parliamentarians, from the period or later, who have let me into that building or their world, to help me understand the what, and how, and where, and why.
Who is your favourite character in the play?
I love them all! I have a soft spot for all the MPs, those individual “guest roles” who sometimes leap into the play just for one scene, but are vivid, and have a clear purpose. That said, there’s something about the relationship between the two deputies – Walter and Jack – that means they have a special place in my mind and the play.
Why did you choose to look at the Whip system?
Because it’s crazy. At least it was back then. Bullying, bribing, cheating, blackmailing, fighting? But there was a noble side to it too. Propping up your party. In a hung parliament, that’s the place to be, day to day. The front line, fighting for each vote. It’s human, too. To be a whip is not to deal with exclusively with policies or ideology, it’s the deal with the human beings being the facade of being an MP. And if my desire was to humanise MPs, with all their strengths and weaknesses and contradictions that we all have… well, that all happens in the whips office.
Why is our political system unique?
It’s certainly old. And unique in that it’s not written down. It’s just passed down. It’s the physicality of it that makes it unique. Like theatre, it can only exist if people turn up into the space itself. You can’t engage with it remotely. It’s very ‘live’. Perfect for a play…
Why do think the play maintains relevance from when it was first staged at The National?
When I wrote it originally, I wanted to tap into the broader themes of our politics, not make it merely a short-term response to hung parliaments. I hope that, because its character driven, and deals with themes that go beyond the 1970s, it stands as a resonant way to explore the constant dilemma in politics, and life: principles versus pragmatism.
Does having an uncodified constitution mean convention plays a bigger part in UK politics?
Absolutely. It makes it very vulnerable – because it relies on the goodness and decency of people. But that also allows it occasionally – as in a moment in this play, between Jack and Walter – to be remarkable, and humane as it breaks the rules.
What attracts you to writing political plays?
You get to place human stories against the backdrop of nation changing events. And both the political and personal reinforce and exacerbate one another.
Are you excited for the play to tour the UK?
More excited than almost any other version of this play. The purpose of having over 40 MP characters from across the UK, named as their constituency, is to show that democracy doesn’t exist or belong within the old corridors of a gothic palace in Westminster. It exists in the representatives sent forth from Leeds North East, Coventry South West, Bolton West, Merioneth, West Lothian, and beyond. Politics is national. I can’t wait for this show to be too…