One Sunday morning in 1981, four prominent Labour politicians – Bill Rodgers, Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins and David Owen – gather at Owen’s home in Limehouse. The Labour Party, under the leadership of Michael Foot, is self-destructing and “the Gang of Four” are desperate to find a political alternative able to beat Thatcher, even if it means splitting their own party. Considering the deplorable state of the Labour Party in 2017, it is not hard to fathom why Steve Waters’ play seems so timely.
David Owen (Tom Goodman-Hill) cannot sleep. It is 4am but he feels there is no time to lose. In his opinion, the Labour Party is drifting in the wrong direction, towards Tony Benn’s faction – whom he considers “insane”- away from Europe and NATO and alienating the moderate voters. His wife Debbie (Nathalie Armin) suggests inviting the rest of the dissenters over to formulate a plan. Owen is sceptical because he does not believe there are friends in politics.
First to arrive is Bill Rodgers (Paul Chahidi), a self-deprecating man but skilled politician, wearing jeans and a jumper, who twists his back whilst trying to open a bottle of expensive red wine. Meanwhile Roy Jenkins, former President of the European Commission, is stuck in Shoreditch, fiddling with an A-Z map to locate Owen’s residence in east London – he is not used to driving himself. Next to arrive is Shirley Williams (Debra Gillett), caring yet strong-willed and therefore the perfect opponent for Margaret Thatcher.
David Owen is pushing for a “Future Manifesto” because the newspapers are already giving a lot of coverage to the dissenters in the Labour Party, particularly to “the Gang of Four”. If the assembled group does not act now, they might be outmanoeuvred by their enemies. With Rodgers, Owen, Jenkins and Williams fighting and debating, the situation seems hopeless. Roy Jenkins (Roger Allam) is willing to work with the Liberal Party, yet Shirley Williams wants no part of a middle-class project, being rooted firmly in Labour – unlike Owen. Whereas Owen prefers action, Rodgers loves politics and he rejects damaging the unions and constituencies by rash actions. His argument that the new party would not be created from a grassroots movement but erected from above is a valid one as is Shirley Williams’ concern that their action might destroy the Labour Party. Debbie, an American Democrat and therefore a fairly objective outsider, asks them to consider their common ground instead of focusing on their differences – and they eventually agree on the “Limehouse Declaration”.
Steve Waters‘ play Limehouse is an actors’ play and Polly Findlay’s poignant production features some outstanding performances, most of all Roger Allam as Roy Jenkins who has taken over the rhetorical style and special mannerisms of the real man. Paul Chahidi and Debra Gillet also convince as the caring face of the dissenters, feeling the painful loss of their political home. Tom Goodman-Hill is perhaps a bit too hot-headed as David Owen but conveys the ambition and drive of the man. Nathalie Armin as Debbie speaks the last few lines of the play, reflecting on a future that might have happened.
Many points that are being made during the discussion still reflect the situation in the Labour Party. Roy Jenkins is probably right when he states that Labour is “like a religious movement”. Whereas the Tories consider only failure an offence, Labour is “obsessed with what divides us, not what unites us”.
A thought-provoking and important production.
Reviewed by Carolin Kopplin
Photo: Jack Sain
Limehouse is playing at the Donmar Warehouse until 15 April 2017