“The Labour party’s fucked!” bellows a tense David Owen in the first line of Steve Waters’ new play, currently on at the Donmar Warehouse. A huge, knowing, slightly weary laugh erupts from the audience and very much sets the tone for the entire 105 minutes that is to follow. This is a play that knows exactly what it’s about: telling the story of the imagined action which immediately preceded the founding of the SDP and the Gang of Four who brought it about but also drawing out the parallels with the situation the Labour party finds itself in today. And let’s be honest those parallels are obvious, many and depressing.
If there’s anything to complain about in this production it is the very obviousness of these parallels, in that they make it difficult to feel that Waters is saying anything new. Yes Michael Foot and Jeremy Corbyn are both shit, what of it? Yes the Europe debate is a mess, we’re very well aware of that thank you very much. Even the big question mark that hangs over the very existence of the play - is the Labour party about to split again? - feels over thought at this point. I mean have you read The Guardian recently?!
However, even if he doesn’t add anything new to the debate Waters’ writing is irreverent, interesting and, most importantly, funny enough to make a very entertaining contribution to it nonetheless. Not afraid to be punchy and chuck in a big swear here and there, but equally not afraid of some deeply elegant and lengthy speeches about the importance of values to notions of identity which will resonate with anyone watching this play who possesses a soul, regardless of what colour rosette that soul happens to wear. With one exception - a po-faced and unnecessary coda which labours the point about historical resonance to an irritating degree - Limehouse is an excellent piece of writing.
And it is exquisitely acted. It’s a necessarily tiny cast - Waters’ only addition to the Gang of Four being David Owen’s seemingly quite excellent wife Debbie - but it positively drips class. I think Tom Goodman-Hill’s David Owen is probably my favourite, a study in charm, barely concealed menace and old school British bombast which results in a portrayal that is arguably much more appealing than the real thing. Paul Chahidi’s Bill Rogers is the most sympathetic of the Four, excellently observed and played with an endearing shyness and gentle humanity which is difficult not to warm to. Roger Allam’s Roy Jenkins is very near perfectly observed, yet somehow still manages to be more than an impression despite being a very, very good impression; capturing the middle class sensibilities which would ultimately be part of the SDP’s undoing perfectly. Debra Gillett’s Shirley Williams rounds out the Four and replicates the good sense mixed with passion (and natty waistcoats) that makes the real Shirl such a treasure really well but, again, remains more than just an impression. Nathalie Armin completes the cast as Debbie Owen and exploits the fact that we don’t know her real life counterpart to create an entirely sensible, rational and constructive foil to all the politicians - perhaps a small point of satire in and of itself.
A short play with a teeny tiny cast demands a sharp and contained production which the team assembled for Limehouse absolutely deliver. Polly Findlay’s direction is crisp and pacey; Alex Eales’ design is simple but effective; Jon Clark’s lighting does a lot with relatively little (his use of spotlights in particular is sufficiently good that I actually noticed it). Special credit is deserved also by whoever makes the pasta bake that is eaten as part of the play - it smelled bloody amazing.
I really rated Limehouse and I think anyone with an interest in politics, of whatever colour, should consider this a must see. I’m not sure it has the beyond-politics appeal of This House, but for political geeks, nerds and apparatchiks it’s 100% worth your time and money. Assuming that is you can get anywhere near a ticket - day returns and standing are your best bet if you’ve not got one already.
Limehouse plays at the Donmar Warehouse until April 15th.