Donmar Warehouse, London – until 15 April 2017
Spoiler for Marxists and Trots! You won’t like this apologia for those `traitors’ behind the setting up of the SDP, the Gang of Four.
Here they are again, `Woy’ Jenkins, Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and a whirling dervish of a David Owen. But for the rest of us, Steve Waters has done us great and entertaining service in reviving memories of that moment in British political history in 1981 and with it, drawing attention to its tragic parallels today.
It’s 1981, Thatcher is in; the Labour Party under an idealistic and decent but ineffectual leader in Michael Foot is in total disarray, torn asunder by infighting and Militant within. Following a `disastrous’ Party Conference, Jenkins, Williams, Rodgers and Owen gather in the kitchen of Owen’s Limehouse `hideaway’ – a place it seems to Rodgers and Jenkins tantamount to being cast into Outer Mongolia for Rodgers who comes from Kentish Town and Jenkins from Pimlico! So it must have seemed in those days before the Overground was invented. And yet, as Limehouse bears witness, if so much has changed, so much has not.
Waters who gave us the wonderful Contingency Plays at the old Bush Theatre – still the best plays written on Climate Change to my view – and the slightly less wonderful Temple (about Church ethics versus poverty and today’s economic realities in the shape of the Occupation of St Paul’s churchyard two years ago) once again bestows a kindlier eye on the Gang of Four than their detractors might wish for.
Yet Owen hardly comes out of it smelling of roses – a man of galvanic, dogmatic energy (and played by Tom Goodman-Hill as if unstoppable train-crash mode) – `a doer’, he keeps repeating, but in essence a bully whose American born wife, Debbie, is constantly attempting to quieten.
Debra Gillet’s Shirley Williams emerges as a tough but sweetened soul – the darling of the party being groomed to take on Thatcher. Roger Allam’s Roy Jenkins’ too emerges with some grace and there is an extraordinarily moving moment when Paul Chahidi’s Bill Rodger’s, only too aware of his own limitations, tells Roy that `anyone who has known you up close, loves you and considers you to have civilised politics in this country’.
Over a period of about twelve hours, the four hammer out and finally agree to a common declaration of intent to set up the new party, the SDP. Again, there is something extraordinarily touching, given where we are today, in the four, with thunderous differences between them, joining hands to sing the Red Flag.
Tribal loyalties, the original intentions behind the setting up of the Labour Party, and its failures, are all brought resoundingly back into play by Waters with terrific gusto and humour as well as passion.
Director Polly Findlay adds pace to what might have become simply a talking heads exercise by running it as if in real time, a digital clock ticking away the minutes before announcing it to a waiting press (outrageously, already primed by Owen).
If Limehouse tells us much about yesterday, it’s also a sad testimony to where we are today and the difficulty – if not impossibility – of finding a social-democratic `middle way’. The level of attention and the hush that fell on Waters’ epilogue tells you everything you need to know about the hunger for a solution and thus, the play’s pertinence.
Along with James Graham’s Privacy and The Vote in 2015 – another juicy look at our political system – the Donmar’s AD, Josie Rourke is making sure not only that the energising spirit of the Bush is kept alive in the West End but also that political analysis and debate remains a cornerstone of her theatre policy. Let’s give thanks for that.