Donmar Warehouse, London – until 15 April 2017
Some moments of modern history deserve reimagining by honest playwrights: we need to remember and reflect, shake our heads and laugh and recognize that politics is just people. It is passion and personalities, vanity and absurdity, comradeship and betrayal, faith and hope and often a distinct lack of charity. This funny, serious, timely play brings all those qualities to the forefront in 105 minutes. Steve Waters, who gave us the marvellous TEMPLE about the St Paul’s Occupy protest, turns now to the year 1981, the day after a disastrous Labour Party “special conference” at Wembley. Four of its rebels met at Dr David Owen’s kitchen table in Limehouse to see whether they could agree to form a new party. There were two MPs of shadow cabinet rank, Owen and Bill Rodgers,; the redoubtable Shirley Williams, who had lost her seat but remained on the Labour NEC; and the rotundly magisterial Roy Jenkins, once Home Secretary and now back from four agreeable years as President of the European Commission.
By early afternoon the “Gang Of Four” had drafted the Limehouse Declaration and founded the Social Democratic Party. Some Labour loyalists never forgave the defection, and blamed them for giving Mrs Thatcher a free run: by the 1990s the remnant had united with the Liberals as Lib-Dems. But it was a quixotic moment, and not for nothing does Nathalie Armin as Debbie Owen – wife, hostess, and often peacemaker through that tempestuous morning – deliver at the end a plaintive “what if?”.
The personalities are gloriously, sometimes mischievously created. Tom Goodman-Hill as Owen is a striding, short-fused impatient crusader, a doctor-knows-best column of energy still coping with a young family and insufficient sleep. Paul Chahidi as Bill Rodgers tracks a finely judged, nuanced progress from playing it plumply prattish , wincing at his bad back, humbly awed by “Woy” Jenkins, yet rising to painful sincerity in his foreboding about the people in Labour he will hurt. Debra Gillett is Shirley Williams, spry and determined and knowing her value, at one point walking out to do the World at One and threaning to derail the whole idea. The final arrival (having got lost in Shoreditch and come via Mile End) is Roger Allam, gloriously funny as Roy Jenkins: a man so used to deference that he has no idea what do do when nobody takes his coat. Within moments he is suavely deploring anyone taking “umbwage” and asking plaintively , as he reminisces on Brussels, whether Wiesling can “even be classified as a wine”. Debbie, who emerges as heroine of the play, plies him with two vintages of Chateau Lafite and takes no umbwage when he cannot manage her homely Delia Smith macaroni cheese.
The glory of this surprisingly moving play, directed by Polly Findlay at a sharp pace, is that it is no cynically hopeless Thick Of It. It does not despise politicians. It gives each of this ill-assorted quartet credit for real faith and real decisions: for caring about voters who “deplore extremes but hunger for justice”, who feel deep loyal roots in Labour but see it collapsing, who remember Attlee and the spirit of ’45 and doubt their own ability to conjure a new party out of a tasteful middle-class kitchen. People who suspect one another , too, and have come from different directions. As Owen says “Bill thinks I’m a wrecker, Shirley thinks I’m a lightweight, Roy thinks I’m Oswald Mosley..”.
But hey, they did it. It was a good try, and could hardly be more timely for the yearning leftie in any of us: again today there is an ageing and ineffective leader of the opposition, a Tory PM, Labour divided and mocked; again it ought to be the centre-left’s big moment, if only the LibDems were not obsessed with overturning the referendum. You could feel the sighs in the audience as we centre-lefties trooped out into the night, with nowhere to go.