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Review: Limehouse, at Donmar Warehouse

Bitingly funny play re-imagines the clandestine meeting between the 'Gang of Four' in January 1981

18 March, 2017 — By Sipora Levy

Roger Allam and Nathalie Armin in Limehouse. PHOTO: JACK SLAIN

THOUGH we live in challenging times, it is also a golden age for political satire. Sales of Private Eye are rising, and James Graham’s play This House, about The Labour party in the 1970s, recently ended a successful West End revival.

Hot on its heels comes Steve Waters’ Limehouse, an entertaining and sharp-edged play about the circumstances that resulted in the birth of the SDP in 1981. This was yet another time when there was a split in the Labour party, and a stubborn left-wing leader was leading them to probable political oblivion. Obviously there are parallels to be drawn with the present day.

Waters has re-imagined the clandestine meeting in January 1981 between the Gang of Four – David Owen, Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers –  over brunch and bottles of Chateau Lafite, in Owen’s Limehouse home. The situation is ripe for farce and Waters doesn’t disappoint. Roger Allam is a wonderful Roy Jenkins, pompous and sardonic; Debra Gillett is suitably wide-eyed and forthright as Williams, and Paul Chahidi imbues Rodgers with a warm sincerity. My only quibble was with Tom Goodman-Hill as Owen. He manages to capture his anger and passion, but sounds and looks more like David Cameron.

Jenkins and Owen are keen to make a break, while Williams and Rodgers are riddled with doubt. Oddly in Limehouse, they both capitulate rather swiftly, which doesn’t quite ring true.

Nathalie Armin plays Owen’s wife, Debbie, by this account a pivotal figure in keeping the quartet on track, with her literary editor’s persuasive charm.

Limehouse is a bitingly funny play that shows up the vanity, foibles and power struggle of the Gang of Four, but also raises questions about loyalty, betrayal and what makes a political party.

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