Roger Allam and Nathalie Armin Roger Allam and Nathalie Armin in Limehouse. Photo: Jack Sain.

Limehouse
by Steve Waters
Donmar Warehouse, London
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
www.donmarwarehouse.com

“The Labour Party is f****d” is the opening line of Steve Waters' incisive new play about the formation of the Social Democrat Party, precursors of the Lib Dems. Now where did we hear that before? It’s barked out by Dr David Owen on 25 January 1981 the day after a Labour Party Special Conference saw the triumph of the hard Left in the party.

With social democracy back on its knees, not just in the UK, this play couldn’t be more apposite. Waters’ previous Donmar outing Temple was a moving exploration of the impact of the Occupy Movement’s sit-in at St Paul’s Cathedral and this also deftly weaves big themes into a very English domestic drama. That was about vicars, this is about Lib Dems.

The setting is the kitchen of Owen’s docklands flat where Owen (Tom Goodman-Hill) and his savvy publisher wife (Nathalie Armin) have invited Bill Rodgers (Paul Chahidi), Shirley Williams (Debra Gillett) and Roy Jenkins (Roger Allam), all grandees on the center/right of the party, to a lunch where the mutinous quartet would jointly draft The Limehouse Declaration, which formalized their split from Labour and the creation of a new party, the SDP. In time the first-past-the-post voting system put paid to their dream but it represented a moment when the hope for a viable alternative to the binaries of extreme left and right in Britain appeared to be flourishing.

The Sunday lunch was Deborah’s idea as a way of calming frayed nerves among The Gang of Four, as they came to be known. Waters makes her a key catalyst here balming egos, whilst knocking heads together. Goodman-Hill perfectly captures Owen’s testiness and frustration with the machinations of politics, his temper and impatience amply demonstrating how he was never really cut out for it. Gillett’s Williams might have appeared Mumsy on the outside but she proves to be just as calculating as the men. Not getting her way she hightails it for a prearranged interview with the BBC. After having second thoughts she returns and a deal is struck but it’s an uneasy alliance as all four question each other’s motives and Owen’s hospitality.

At the time Williams was a single mother and we see her rightly resenting the men who “have nothing to detain them”. Rodgers, although the political backroom fixer is seen as a rather bumbling chap, hilariously putting his back out trying to uncork a bottle of Chateau Lafitte, to be used as bait for Roy, just back from his sojourn as President of the European Commission.

Roger Allam, scene stealing yet again, and in unrecognisable make up, is simply sublime as the haughty and clubbable Jenkins, of whom it was once said that “He could never be at home except in High Office or at High Table”. Allam perfectly captures not just the famous lisp but all that fogeyish detachment. The verbosity is wondrous. When offered a coffee he responds “I am replete in terms of caffeinated refreshment”. He is compelling though in his plea for ‘a liberal Britain’ and a rapprochement with the Liberal Party pointing out its intertwined heritage with Labour. Owen of course quickly dismisses them as “whimsical hobbyists”. Owen confides to Deborah at one stage “you have no friends in politics” and the sheer levels of distrust here makes the fact of the agreement seem like a miracle. Waters shows the quartet as mostly truculent and egomaniacal, with the politician’s eye always to the leak. At least they didn’t have Twitter to play with then.

But this is no arid wallow for political nerds, director Polly Findlay has fashioned a totally compelling chamber piece and Waters’ dialogue throughout just sparkles. The decision to have a digital clock on countdown overhead was perhaps a step too far though. After all, this was four liberals trying to sit down to macaroni cheese without falling out, not some nuclear disaster movie.

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