Let’s get this straight: his name might not appear in the cast list, but Limehouse is a play about Corbyn. Or, rather, it wants to be.
Steve Waters’ five-hander whisks us back to 1981, when four centrist Labour politicians – Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, David Owen and Bill Rodgers – holed up at Owen’s house in Limehouse to form the SDP, but it wears its contemporary relevance on its sleeve. Initially, one can hardly move for the not-so-subtle finger-pointing towards the parallels between then – female-led Tory government with a free pass, far-left-leaning Labour leadership propped up by unions and members, questions about Europe circling in the air – and now.
Except, hang on. I’ll concede the Thatcher-May observation, but in 1981 it was the scrappy, sordid Wilson-Callaghan Labour that many were tired of. Now, it’s the death-knell of the centrist, soft-left, Blair-Brown New Labour movement that’s sounding loudest (from where I’m standing, anyway). And we haven’t just entered Europe, with a population enamoured of a new outward-looking, cosmopolitan vision, we’ve just left it, to turn inwards and sort our own house out. The SDP-fable may have a lot to teach us and the Labour party may be a mess just as it was back then, but the goalposts have entirely switched ends since Jenkins et al planted their flag with the Limehouse Declaration.
If Waters’ play is a success – and, just to be clear, it most certainly is – it’s because it leaves this exercise in joining the dots behind and grasps at something wider, something more universal, and something far less journalistic. The familiar arguments – all too familiar if you’re a Labour member – over the right-doings and wrongdoings of the ‘Gang Of Four’ and whether or not the SDP paved the way for 18 years of Tory rule get left behind, and Limehouse starts skewering the essential cadences of political drama: principles vs power, loyalty vs responsibility, sentiment vs ambition.
Let’s rewind. It’s 1981 – Sunday 25th January 1981 to be precise, the day after a special Labour party conference in Wembley had shifted power away from MPs and towards the unions – and Owen (Tom Goodman-Hill), together with his American wife Debbie (Nathalie Armin) are planning to do something drastic. As the other members of the ‘Gang of Four’ trickle in – Rodgers (Paul Chahidi), Williams (Debra Gillett) and Jenkins (Roger Allam) – the discussion circles around, then sinks its teeth into the possibility of setting up a new party altogether.
What starts as a thought-experiment involving four lightly-shaded caricatures and a Yank evolves into a compelling political debate about the heart and soul of the British left. Somewhat formulaically, but utterly engrossingly, each character has their big moment. Goodman-Hill’s Owen – a smarmy, coiffured hothead – rants about the current leadership and yearns to reach out to an imagined constituency of middle-class liberals. Gillett’s forthright, pragmatic Williams witheringly shuns anything smacking of vanity. Allam’s Jenkins – a typically brilliant study in lisping, elderly deliberation – talks movingly of his youth, Attlee and Europe. And Chahidi’s Rodgers – an anxious bumbler with backache – comes into his own with an unexpectedly poignant dissection of what leaving Labour really means: wrenching friends apart, tearing down decades of solidarity. For what?
Waters’ rhetoric demonstrates pinpoint precision throughout, unsentimental but with fleeting touches of emotion, stylishly naturalistic without showboating. And the ever-proceeding dialectic of his arguments builds upon itself with metronomic elegance. Polly Findlay directs astutely on Alex Eales’ fifty-shades-of-beige kitchen set, balancing the weighty with the witty, the political with the personal. As the action progresses, a pasta bake cooks in the oven. The phone rings and rings upstairs. One can almost hear the press pack baying for news.
Oh, it’s all so bloody brilliant. Smart, slick, sophisticated, superbly acted, and steeped in political history with a refreshing lack of grandeur. With Limehouse, Waters has taken a momentous political event and neatly reduced it to its essentials. Once one can see past the self-satisfied – and in my view misplaced – nods and winks towards Corbyn’s Labour, one is left with an intellectually thrilling hour-and-forty-five that, like James Graham’s This House, touches at the very heart of British politics, and asks that most fascinating of hypotheticals: what if we all just stuck together for once?
And, boy, does that pasta bake smell good.
Limehouse is on at the Donmar Warehouse until 15th April 2017. Click here for more details.