“The Labour Party is fucked” is the axiomatic opening line of Steve Waters’ rousing new play. The year is 1981 and the location is the Limehouse kitchen in which the so-called “gang of four” Labour big beasts plotted the formation of the breakaway SDP.
The parallels with Jeremy Corbyn’s party are dishearteningly clear. As now, the 1981 party was in disarray, unable to capitalise on the opposition’s waning popularity, and utterly at the behest of the hard-left. As if the link weren’t clear enough, we’re reminded that politics has an uncanny knack of repeating itself, and that Labour has struggled to reconcile being a party of power as well as a party of protest from the early days of Keir Hardie through to Harold Wilson and beyond.
But Limehouse is more than just a comment on the present, it’s also a fabulous, hilarious take on one of modern politics’ most seismic events. Acting from the five-strong cast – Roger Allam as Roy Jenkins, Debra Gillett as Shirley Williams, Tom Goodman-Hill as David Owen, Paul Chahidi as Bill Rodgers, plus Nathalie Armin as Owen’s publicist wife Debbie – is superb.
A barely recognisable Allam (The Thick of It), his hair ensconced under a polished dome, is particularly brilliant, perfecting Jenkins’ mannerisms and speech impediment to wonderful effect, making him at once a figure of fun and a respected elder. Gillett, meanwhile, looking every inch like her real-life counterpart, is hugely charming – bold, endearing and principled, she’s the backbone of the group. I’d have voted for her.
The entire play takes place in the Owens’ “bourgeois” kitchen, complete with a functional stove from which a piping-hot dish of macaroni emerges mid-way through, to the noticeable displeasure of Jenkins (a rather cruel touch in a play with no interval; stomachs were audibly rumbling). On the far wall a rack of gleaming knives acts as a constant reminder that the actions of these four was seen by many as the ultimate betrayal.
Waters clearly believes they did the right thing, however. The play ends with an out-of-character address to the audience, both a wistful examination of why the new party failed and a rousing call to action. It’s invigorating, even if centrists must know deep down that a similar movement today would surely suffer the same fate.
First published in City A.M.