Limehouse – A review

Matthew Doyle is (mostly) impressed by Steve Waters’ compelling drama

Politics and theatre have long fed off one another and the attempt to ‘break the mould’ of Britain’s two dominant parties has been turned into a rewarding tale at the Donmar Warehouse by Steve Waters. Inevtiably the parallels with today will be the focus, but this is secondary to a study of four fascinating and different personalities who came together in despair and tried to do something new.

The one-room play is set in the kitchen of David Owen’s eponymous Limehouse home that saw the four very different politicians come together to form the Council on Social Democracy in January 1981.

The conflict of background, values and ambition is clear and beautifully brought out by an impressive cast, most notably a sublime performance from Roger Allam as Roy Jenkins. Impressive wig work and rolling ‘r’ sounds make the transformation from The Thick of It’s Peter Mannion stay just the right side of the parody line. Allam has some of the best political lines about Europe and the fate of Labour and they are compellingly delivered but it is also the deft touches: the conflict between pure contempt and instinctive politeness when presented with macaroni cheese is a joy to behold in itself.

The problem with creating ‘a fiction based on real events’ is that the dramatic licence required for creating such a play does clash with reality. The fact that the events of weeks are truncated into one morning can make some of the characters’ changes of view seem more like unexplained handbrake turns than the tortured deliberations they clearly were, and that makes it hard work for Paul Chahidi and Debra Gillett as Bill Rogers and Shirley Williams.

Chahidi’s Rogers is the conscience of the piece that foreshadows the divisions, not just political but personal, that will follow with the creation of the Social Democratic party. ‘We will be hated, and rightly so’, he sadly laments.

The only performance that grates is Tom Goodman-Hill’s Owen. Although the shouting and stomping around may be an accurate portrayal of the former foreign secretary, they become a little tedious to watch. It is Nathalie Armin’s performance as his literary agent wife Debbie that yet again makes you think the wrong person in a couple went into politics. It is also a relief that the female character is not used simply as an explanatory vehicle for the audience.

Waters seems to be very much of the school of thought that history should be studied to be repeated rather than avoided, and the one totally superfluous moment in the play is a closing monologue from Debbie saying how relevant the story of a Labour party in crisis and a Britain crashing out of Europe is today. The audience should have been given enough credit to work that out for themselves.

In reality, just as with The Deal about the pact made between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown at the Granita restaurant, this was the coda to a whole load of work that had been done in advance of that moment.

Waters’ strength is to not worry about the artistic licence being taken, but instead embrace it into a compelling drama, made all the better by the brilliant performances it generates from the whole cast, reminding us of the significance of these individuals and not just their role as guides for the future.

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Matthew Doyle is a political consultant and former adviser to Tony Blair. He tweets at @doylematthew

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Limehouse is showing at Donmar Warehouse between 2 March–17 April 2017

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