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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Limehouse
Donmar  Theatre  Spring 2017

In imagining what went on at a famous political meeting in 1981, playwright Steve Waters offers a delightfully wicked satire disguised as an innocent history lesson. 

Some in the audience will be educated, some reminded of a half-forgotten story, some amused by unforced parallels to contemporary politics. But all should thoroughly enjoy the way Waters deflates the very figures he appears to be celebrating. 

In 1981, with Thatcher and the Tories in solid control, the Labour Party went into one of its regularly scheduled self-destruct modes, lurching wildly to the left. Four leading Labour figures reacted by announcing the formation of a new more moderately left party, the Social Democrats, to be more true to traditional Labour values.

(Although briefly trendy, the SDP never drew large numbers, and had to ally itself with, and eventually be absorbed into, the existing centre-left Liberal Party.)

Waters imagines the Sunday meeting in David Owen's kitchen at which Owen, Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers worked out the concept and the announcement of the new party. 

And what he discovers are four enormous egos even though Rodgers's took a humbler-than-thou form and four different determinations to shape the new party in their own image. 

Part of the fun of director Polly Findlay's production is the way each of the four jockeys for the opportunity to speechify at the others, and how difficult each finds it to remain silent long enough to listen to another's speechifying. 

Playwright, director and actors also have fun with the champaigne-socialist quality of the group, their very middle-class values and attitudes constantly threatening to undercut their credibility as working-class heroes.  

The setting itself, Owen's luxury flat in the ungentrified East End, whispers poseur, and even  the lunch break Mrs. Owen prepares, a Delia Smith version of macaroni and cheese accompanied by vintage wines, takes the mickey out of the well-off playing at solidarity with the poor. 

And, as I mentioned, every mention of an entrenched Tory government and a splintered left-lurching Labour, in the context of debates over Britain's place in Europe, generates laughter at the contemporary parallels. 

And yet, through all the laughter at the pretentious and sometimes self-parodying four, a sense of their underlying sincerity and dedication to values they believe even if they don't quite live by does come through, along with the sense that these individually ambitious politicians were bravely risking their futures for a cause. 

Sensitively guided by director Findlay, the actors each go for the essence of their characters rather than direct imitation beyond some token attribute, like Roy Jenkins' W-for-R speech defect. 

Tom Goodman-Hill captures the mixture of hot-headedness and constantly-posing-for-imaginary-photographers vanity of David Owen, while Roger Allam unforcedly identifies the epicure and culture snob in Jenkins the look on his face when offered mac-and-cheese, even in a gourmet version, hilariously and indelibly types him. 

Debra Gillett finds an only slightly less steely Thatcher inside Shirley Williams and Paul Chahidi makes Rodgers the personification of the born follower suddenly finding himself among the leaders. 

And the constant scene-stealer, and one of playwright Waters's most wicked inventions, is Nathalie Armin's Debbie Owen as the most sensible person in the room, repeatedly guiding the others back from their various individual hobby horses toward the job at hand. 

Come for the history lesson or reminder, but don't miss the real fun of Limehouse in the play and production's inventive blend of respect and ridicule.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Limehouse - Donmar Theatre 2017  

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