Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Limehouse at the Donmar, or, Yes, This Is How It Might Have Been

Note: This is a belated review of the performance on Wednesday 12th April 2017.

My hopes were high for this show after Steve Waters's powerful Temple at the same venue in 2015. I was not disappointed. This is an outstanding play, superbly performed: politically charged, emotionally moving, and posing us difficult questions.

The drama focuses on the hours prior to the Gang of Four's famous Limehouse Declaration founding the SDP. David Owen (Tom Goodman-Hill), and his wife Debbie (Nathalie Armin), Shirley Williams (Debra Gillett), Roy Jenkins (Roger Allam) and Bill Rodgers (Paul Chahidi) gather at Owen's house to argue, by turns bitterly, ambitiously, idealistically, and with anguish about political futures – their own and the country's.


Waters is too shrewd a writer to see them through rose tinted spectacles, and yet he also manages to show the positive to each negative. Some examples: Owen's sometimes violent arrogance both evidences why he's an impossible leader and yet provides the impetus to get them moving. Jenkins's intellectual snobbery and only slightly more veiled ambition are similar bars and yet he demonstrates an ability to connect emotionally that Owen finally lacks. Rodgers, on one level the insignificant organiser, has yet a meaning here that transcends all the others.

Waters also attends to the conflicting interpretations: Is it a betrayal of the Labour Party? Should they have stayed and fought? Here he movingly takes up the charge that Jenkins was never really a true Labourite with a story about Jenkins's father's activist past – spellbindingly delivered by Allam, and one of a number of places that stops everything dead. What hope ever was there of success? The play, to its credit as far as I'm concerned, does not pretend there are easy answers – either for us sitting in judgement or for our protagonists trying to decide. There certainly is not, and, I would suggest, nor should there be, an easy message about the merits or otherwise of founding new centrist parties. One aside though - I did come away with an increased belief that Shirley Williams ought to have been leader.

As a production this is a fine example of my adage that simple is best. It all takes place on a single set, the Owens' kitchen. There are no gimmicks, unless preparing a meal (appropriately from a Delia Smith recipe) be counted as such. The focus is, as I still think makes the best drama, squarely on these characters and their dilemma.

My one doubt about the work concerned the epilogue. When the Gang have gone out to Limehouse Basin, and into history, the house lights come up, Mrs Owen steps out of character and reminds us of a few selected events to come (1983 result, SDP collapse, Blair). But she ends with a question for us – that question is pretty clear from the play proper, but its urgency may justify the direct address.

Musing over this powerful work since, three things strike me. First, this is simply a piece of quality theatre – performed and produced to the highest standards. Secondly, it is a model for how to do political theatre – it trusts the audience to accept that the debate is, in and of itself, of importance, it is prepared to allow a whole range of perspectives on that debate to be aired, and it never loses sight of the fact that these are real human people whose lives will be changed by it. Thirdly, it poses us a question – what lesson should we take from this history? I suspect individual members of each audience will have different answers to this – depending primarily on their own political position. Mine is undoubtedly coloured by my many years of Lib Dem membership and my utter contempt for the present leadership of the Labour Party. That acknowledgement made, the answer for me is that this is not in fact a lesson about the pluses and minuses of starting a new centrist party. Partly it's a message about the contrast between Labour then and Labour now – then, it seems to me there was a visible struggle going on for the soul of the party. Now, most of it seems to have rolled over and surrendered to the ineffective Corbynist madness. That contrast is not encouraging. But there is a more powerful and finally hopeful message contained in the character of Rodgers. The other three all have lives beyond politics. For Rodgers, at least as portrayed here, politics is his life. Partly, he stands as a reminder that it was once possible for this to be a nobler calling than it now feels with respect to the undistinguished mass of most of our representatives. It also means that Rodgers has far more to lose through this choice than any of the others. At the same time he's the only one who knows perfectly well he won't lead the party and, indeed, has no desire to. As such he seems to me closer to the many non-professional politicians who were inspired by the possibility of the SDP. The bravado of his choice to go, the price involved and the hope of what might be ask powerful questions. They still resonate.

Since the run ended this weekend I can't urge you to go. Like Temple this play fully deserves a further life in the West End. Like Temple I suspect it won't get it. That's unfortunate, for this is a play, as I hope I've made clear, that asks urgent, relevant questions - even more so following today's announcement of an early general election. A second strong candidate in recent weeks for my play of the year.

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