Thursday, 23 March 2017

Theatre review: Limehouse

In the last couple of years the Donald and Margot Warehouse has been increasingly staging new political plays, with the latest finding painfully topical relevance in events from 1981, when a breakaway group from Labour formed the Social Democratic Party. Steve Waters' Limehouse takes place over a long Sunday, after a party conference in which the Unions' influence overturned every centrist proposal, positioning Labour firmly at the far left. Already known as the Gang of Four for their vocal disagreement with the direction the party was taking, David Owen (Tom Goodman-Hill,) Bill Rodgers (Paul Chahidi,) Shirley Williams (Debra Gillett) and Roy Jenkins (Roger Allam) see this as the final straw that will make the party permanently unelectable. They usually meet at the more central home of one of the others, but today Owen insists they come to his house in Limehouse for a change of scenery.

He wants to propose that they break away and form a new party, announcing it in time to make Monday's papers. The other three know that's his plan, and want to see if he can convince them.

Polly Findley's production plays out without an interval, the right decision as, although not a single scene (the action spans from 4am to 2pm) there's a sense of urgency that Owen has created by already calling the press before a decision has even been made - forcing the others' hands. Although Owen is abrasive and manipulative, and Allam's reliably entertaining Jenkins* pompous and ambitious, Waters' play is largely positive about the politicians' intentions, showing them as genuinely coming to this action out of concern that the Conservatives have no opposition worth the name.

Chahidi is as likeable as ever while Gillett gives Williams a common sense and sparkly-eyed enthusiasm that justifies why the others believe she's the key to getting the public's trust. But it seems the real master stroke in Owen inviting them to his house is the fact that his American wife Debbie (Nathalie Armin) is there, her level head helping her talk the arguing politicians into seeing how their ultimate goals are the same (we know she's got good instincts because she's a publicist who's decided to represent a new food writer called Delia Smith; the smell of Delia's macaroni cheese recipe, which gets cooked during the show, makes it the most scene-stealing pasta since Carey Mulligan's spaghetti†.)

Waters' play is interesting although you have to wonder how someone like James Graham might have told the whole history of the SDP - from dismissing the Liberals to eventually merging with them to form the Lib Dems - rather than just its inception. The only reason this thought even comes up is that Waters shoots himself in the foot at the last minute with a clumsy epilogue in which Armin comes out of character to spell out the play's "what might have been" theme and its contemporary parallels, in case the audience could have missed them. Armin handles it well but I felt sorry for her having to deliver Jerry's Final Thought like this.

Still, the evening is overall effective at drawing up the parallels between then and now - an imploding Labour party powerless to fight a far-right female PM determined to eradicate workers' rights while appealing to their votes - and hoping that someone will offer an alternative this time as well. So I had my usual response to things like this: Depression at the weary familiarity, optimism that at least things eventually got pulled back to sanity before and might again, followed by depression again at the fact that even in 1981 the bridge-burning wasn't as thorough and gleeful as it is now. And then I forgot all of that and was just hungry from smelling the pasta bake.

Limehouse by Steve Waters is booking until the 15th of April at the Donmar Warehouse.

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Jack Sain.

*Hot Take! Allam keeps taking these roles of real-life bald men to show off the fact that he still needs to wear a bald cap to play them.

†and possibly as controversial - just as what Carey Mulligan was cooking was allegedly Bolognese, and everyone reacted with "but she chucked a pint of milk in there, that's not Bolognese. Looked really nice anyway though, I'd like to try it," Phill strongly objected to the TWO WHOLE LEEKS in Delia's macaroni and cheese, although the bacon is less controversial. Bacon's never controversial, unless you start chucking it in pudding, and even then I'd be willing to hear your arguments. There was further controversy in Debbie boiling the macaroni first before putting the dish into the oven. I'd agree that this was more of a pasta bake than a macaroni cheese but whatever it is I want to try it, leeks and all. Even when Armin was just frying the onions it smelt really good.

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