The Labour party is divided. Its left-wing leader is unpopular within the party, and there are MPs and cabinet members threatening to leave. Labour is tearing itself apart from the inside and a wildly disliked female Conservative is Prime Minister, the media are predicting a split from the party.
I’m not addressing the current state of affairs. I’m describing the political climate in the UK in 1981. Two years after Thatcher won the 1979 election, four prominent Labour politicians – David Owen (Tom Goodman-Hill), Bill Rodgers (Paul Chahidi), Shirley Williams (Debra Gillett) and Roy Jenkins (Roger Allam) – met at Owen’s home in Limehouse, East London, to discuss forming a new party and breaking away from a Labour they felt was done for. They were known as the ‘Gang of Four’, and on 25 January 1981, they released the Limehouse Declaration and formed the Social Democratic Party.
Now, Steve Waters’ new play imagines that day at Owen’s home (one of the most debated days in British political history) and what might have played out for the four to reach the conclusion that they did. His writing captures the arguably egocentric and offhand conclusions the group came to on that day. It brings a moment in time back to life that is so very similar to the one we are living through today.
Gillett, as Williams, is warm, strong, and adds to the humanism of the group. I imagine her presence in the play has the same effect as her presence had in the gang almost 40 years ago. Chahidi offers a bumbling Bill Rogers, who is sensitive and largely agrees with most of Williams’ sentiments. Roy Jenkins is brought to life by Roger Allam, lisp and all, who portrays him with an outright and defiant disposition, only softened by a bottle of his favourite vintage red. Goodman-Hill transforms into toffee-nosed David Owen, and although we witness him fulfilling domestic duties and being a husband, Goodman-Hill still makes him feel aggressively passionate; a little idealistic and very self-assured.
Seeing the four against the set designed by Alex Eales, homely and domesticated, helps to create a view of politicians, of both past and present, that is a little closer to ourselves. They aren’t power-hungry bourgeois, out-of-touch lunatics. We watch as they debate and consider, throwing ideas around and the occasional insult, and they are humanised. We sometimes forget politicians are people. Limehouse reminds us that they are. Waters makes it seem as though all four genuinely believed what they were doing was the right thing to do. Whether they were correct or not, or successful or not, is another matter entirely.
Unfortunately, I was born way after 1981, so ultimately a few gags regarding past politicians were sadly lost on me. Minuscule amounts of the script may go to waste on a younger audience, but Limehouse is a play that imagines the events leading up to an important moment in British political history.
Directed by Polly Findlay, as they sneak in and out of Owen’s home and craft the manifesto in his kitchen, we watch history unfold. Expertly acted, Limehouse gorgeously captures the excitement of the time, and sense that something was about to change.
Limehouse is playing at Donmar Warehouse until 15 April.