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BWW Review: LIMEHOUSE, Donmar Warehouse


I suspect that many members of the audience will, like me, recall the events of 36 years ago with some clarity, but it's the details that bring it all back in a Proustian rush. David Owen with that flick of his fringe; Roy Jenkins with his pouty disdain; Shirley Williams in her slightly upmarket Janis Joplin outfit; Bill Rodgers jeans and jumper, continually edging out of the frame.

Steve Waters' play does take us back a generation or two, but the issues (or "ishoos" as Owen's nemesis, Tony Benn, would always claim were the er... issue) seem oh so familiar. A recently defeated Labour Party, energised by new blood in the rank and file, lurching leftwards as its leadership struggles to re-establish control; Tories riding high in the polls but resented by much of the populace under an ideologically driven woman Prime Minister; and "Europe" pulling continually at politicians' coats, demanding attention, demanding solutions.

This tumult is condensed into just under two hours at the famous (or infamous) lunch at David Owen's chic house on the Thames which produced the characteristically pompously titled Limehouse Declaration that led to the formation of the Social Democratic Party (the SDP), and later the Alliance (with the Liberal Party) and ultimately the Liberal Democrats of today. But not just that - more of which later.

In a recent radio interview, the three remaining politicians (Jenkins died in 2003) slightly awkwardly explained that while the substance of the play was true, the conversations took place over months rather than hours - but that's stage drama I suppose and not HBO style mini-series, which enjoy the luxury of sprawling over weeks. That foreshortened timescale lends a little artifice to the back and forth, friends falling out and making up in seconds, Owen's wife, publishing executive Debbie Owen, intervening frequently, the press pressing at the door - that's okay. It's theatre.

But if the conversations are somewhat forced, the play leaps into life when the four politicians detail their positions as compromise is sought. Owen has had enough and wants out, lusting for the control a new party would give him, even if he is not leader, his contempt for Labour, Liberal and Tory parties barely concealed in polite company. Williams feels the pull of the Labour Party's historic commitment to the working class, the voiceless, the disempowered and seeks the way best to serve their needs. Jenkins is influenced by his father's radical Labour past, but more so by his recent experience as President of the European Commission, where he saw politics played out as intellectual compromise and not class warfare and "liberal" was not a dirty word on the Left. Rodgers loves the game, the chat and the fixing that keeps the show on the road and he loves Jenkins too. When the characters speak from their hearts with the passions that drove them, the show soars.

Tom Goodman-Hill gives us a David Owen headstrong and assured, a Thatcher with balls one might say (though neither lacked "balls", as it were). I didn't see much of Owen's hauteur so brilliantly captured by Spitting Image, but maybe that's the myth overtaking the man. Nathalie Armin does what she can as Debbie Owen, but it's not much of a role if truth be told, a bit of a device to get us from one scene to the next.

Paul Chahidi has a lot of fun with his reticent, beta-male amongst the alphas, Bill Rodgers, the struggle between loyalty to party and friends and loyalty to ideas and principles playing out in his eyes as much as in his limited interventions. It's a subtle and warm portrayal of a decent man searching for the decent thing to do. Debra Gillett's Shirley Williams grapples with the double problem of not being an MP (losing her seat in 1979) and being a woman, her self-confidence more fragile than the men's, her life outside politics much richer. She never works out if she is being used to put a human face on betrayal or whether they really do want her to be the figurehead and leader of the new party. Had she Thatcher's single-minded ambition, things might have been so different.

Roger Allam lords it over them all as Roy Jenkins, the big beast on the riverbank, erudite, visionary and arrogant - the very epitome of the cultural elite so despised by the Daily Mail today. For all the charm and self-indulgence, there's steel in the velvet glove too, as his brutal cutting across Debbie Owen late in the play reminds you of his consistent ignoring of her and, to some extent, Williams too. It's no surprise to recall that he got his alliance with the Liberal Party and that he would have been Prime Minister had they won the election in 1983 - an eventuality scuppered by a trifecta of an improving economy, the Falklands War and a press that backed the cult of Mrs Thatcher to the hilt.

For all of the Gang of Four's party political failure (the difficulties new parties face as a result of the UK's "First Past The Post" electoral system are explained at some length) the play's epilogue with its references to Tony Blair shows that their ideas lay behind much of the 1997 Labour Party Manifesto and the earlier changes to party management that made that splendid document possible. Unlike 1981, the 1997 Labour Party was committed to Europe, committed to a mixed economy and committed to balancing redistribution of wealth with incentives for work. Those ideas are essentially social democratic and they were bought, not once, but three times by the British electorate (in 1997, 2001 and 2005). As the Gang of Four stood on the Thames-side bridge for the Limehouse Declaration photo-opportunity, they knew that their bridges with the Labour Party were burned forever, but their politics sowed a seed in the minds not just of Tony Blair, but Gordon Brown, John Smith and even Neil Kinnock. Perhaps the time for their middle-ground politics to return is closer than we think.

Limehouse is at the Donmar Warehouse until 15 April.

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