What if, back in January 1981, over Delia Smith’s mac and cheese, and a particularly good Château Lafite, four ‘ill assorted political misfits’ had succeeded in putting a rocket under mainstream British politics?
Steve Waters’ fascinating new political drama, Limehouse, which has just opened at London’s Donmar Warehouse, is a blistering account about one of the most momentous days in the UK’s political history.
“The Labour Party is fucked!” screams renegade MP, David Owen. It could have been said yesterday but the declaration of war, against his own party, was spat out one cold January morning in 1981. The “Gang of Four” had had enough. It was time for a revolution.
Oh, to be a fly on the wall. Academic and playwright, Steve Waters, appears to have been the uninvited guest, an unseen observer at a watershed lunch when four MPs put aside their own differences to launch a new centre-left Social Democratic Party (SDP) in a bid to gatecrash the electoral system.
He wasn’t. But Limehouse would make you question that assumption. It’s full of highly quotable lines that quite probably were said 36 years ago but are equally muttered among the Members and their voters in 2017.
Who thought a story about a rancorous Sunday lunch between embittered colleagues, Labour mavericks Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and David Owen, could be so engrossing?
Limehouse joins that small cabal of illustrious stage successes like Jonathan Maitland’s Dead Sheep and James Graham’s This House, and even Moira Buffini’s Handbagged, in probing that grey area of literature, the factional bioplay. The minutiae may be pure conjecture but the dialogue is based on factual events.
The programme states that the play is “a fictionalised account of real events” and it’s absolutely riveting. The line between fact and fiction is blurred but it’s hard not to believe that this is pretty much how the day went down.
Limehouse is the gentrified East London home of David and Debbie Owen (Tom Goodman-Hill and Nathalie Armin) we meet them at a key moment in their lives.
It is January, 1981 – we know that because director Polly Findlay has a huge digital clock projected onto the roof of the set.
Owen is up, muttering to himself, occasionally swearing, frequently taking large sips from a wine glass, and making notes.
Waters’ view of Owen, which may or may not be right, is that he’s forceful to the point of bullying, a passionate and principled firebrand, disillusioned and disappointed with Labour, charismatic and charming – when he wants something – ambitious, truculent, and powerfully persuasive.
Debbie, always her husband’s staunchest ally, knows that he has an uphill struggle persuading the other three to make a move and has suggested a charm offensive, with lunch at home.
“Right this minute Labour’s obituary is being typed,” he tells her. She placates his fury. “This is your time to make something new,” she tells him. “By the end (of lunch) you won’t be a gang, you’ll be a party!”
A few hours later he is joined by the affable and rather benign, Bill Rodgers (Paul Chahidi), the first of their guests to arrive, and immediately the talk turns to yesterday’s decisive and, as far as they were concerned, calamitous Labour Party conference in Wembley.
“What if there’s a design fault in the Labour Party?” he says. “Why do we always hate our leaders? I don’t want to wake up in ten years time to find Margaret Thatcher enthroned and Labour a distant memory.”
Shirley Williams (Debra Gillett) arrives followed, eventually, by Roy Jenkins. Poor Roy, his inability to say his ‘Rs’ always made him a media joke, but here Roger Allam delivers a beautifully modulated performance as the politician.
Before they’ve even sat down the four are bickering with Owen demanding action and Rodgers terrified of the consequences.
“When did you get so vacillating and timid?” says Owen, rounding on him.
It’s only when Debbie breaks open the good plonk that the four sit down, put their individual grievances aside, and thrash out the bones of a party manifesto.
Waters gives each of them the floor to present their own powerful arguments. Rodgers is still unsure. “Do new parties survive? Standing in the election booth people will ask themselves the question: ‘ Is this vote a wasted vote’?
“If we don’t prevail we will wreck people’s lives.”
The rhetoric, the power plays, and the personalities shape Limestone into a thrilling and unmissable political drama about the meteoric rise and fall of doomed idealism that did, indeed wreck people’s lives.
The gang of four playing the rebels do a superb job. Allam’s Jenkins turns out to be a wine aficionado, a bit of a raconteur, and nothing like the “relic” Goodman-Hill’s brilliantly observed Owen has lead us to believe.
Gillett probably gets the closest to an actual impression of the woman many thought would give Maggie a run for her money.
Running at the Donmar Warehouse until April 15.
Limehouse, at London’s Donmar Warehouse, gets my vote as an engrossing and riveting drama about a momentous day in the country’s political history.