Review of Limehouse by Steve Waters at the Donmar Warehouse
The Donmar Warehouse have just seen two of the plays it premiered last year nominated for Best New Play for this year's Olivier Awards -- Elegy and One Night in Miami. They could already be in the running again next year with Steve Waters's Limehouse, the title of which refers to the East London home of politician David Owen and his American literary agent wife where, in 1981, a very public defection took place, as four leading members of the Labour Party founded a new breakaway party, the Social Democrats (SDP).
With a restive Labour Party in public disarray again now, there are obvious contemporary parallels; could the same thing happen again now? This play offers a cautionary tale of the personal ambitions, animosities and idealism that variously fuelled the original 'gang of four', as they became dubbed.
As with James Graham's This House, recently revived in the West End after originally premiering at the National in 2012, it takes a real-life political event (in that case, the machinations of 1974 parliamentary politics) and vividly imagines what was going on behind-the-scenes. Both are, inevitably, partly fictionalised versions of it -- but both have the ring of documentary realism and authenticity.
The joy of Waters's play is to provide incredibly meaty acting roles for each of the gang of four to be stirringly impersonated by -- as well as David Owen's wife, who was party to the events that played out in their dinning room on January 25, 1981.
In Polly Findlay's totally absorbing production, they are rivetingly played by Roger Allam (virtually unrecognisable as Roy Jenkins), Debra Gillett (Shirley Williams), Paul Chahidi (Bill Rodgers), Tom Goodman-Hill (David Owen) and Natalie Armin (as Owen's wife Debbie). But the play isn't just a feast of great acting, but also a provocative insiders' guide to politics in the making.