Limehouse (Donmar Warehouse)

Posted: March 20, 2017 in Theatre


Perhaps no one ever learns the lessons of history, but Steve Waters’ new play reminds us that history is currently repeating itself, with the politics of the left in the United Kingdom being in a remarkably similar position now to that of 1981 when the so-called Gang of Four broke away from the Labour Party to form the new Social Democratic Party. Labour, having lost the 1979 General Election, had been taken over by left-wing factions and the four centre-lefties plotted a way forward – Dr David Owen had been the youngest Foreign Secretary in history, but was now consigned to the opposition benches along with former minister Bill Rodgers. Another once rising star, Shirley Williams had lost her seat in 1979 and elder statesman Roy Jenkins, who had lost the 1976 Labour leadership election to Jim Callaghan, was returning home after completing a term as President of the European Commission. On 25 January 1981, they became a prototype for the now much reviled metropolitan elite

Waters’ approach is to emulate the style of the favourite playwright of the time when his play is set – Alan Ayckbourn. American-born Debbie Owen (Nathalie Armin) busies herself in her 80s chic kitchen, preparing Sunday brunch from a Delia Smith recipe for her hot-headed Welsh husband David (Tom Goodman-Hill) and their three guests – jocular “neighbour” Bill (Paul Chahidi), matronly “cousin” Shirley (Debra Gillett) and wise “Uncle Woy” (Roger Allam). The three all get lost trying to find the Owen home in Limehouse, a soon-to-be-gentrified area of Docklands, but they arrive one-by-one and the Chateau Lafite Socialists argue, bluster, dither, get a little tipsy and eventually reach a decision that they convince themselves is momentous.

All of these characters have many equivalents in Ayckbourn and “Absurd Person Quadrupular” suggests itself as an alternative title for the play. Being the Donmar, the production values are top class, Polly Findlay directing the comedy with the gentlest of touches. Alex Eales’ kitchen set is a delight and the costumes were designed for him over 36 years ago. The acting is exemplary, with Allam, not over-doing the speech impediment, stealing everything in sight..

In a “what if” epilogue, Armin drops the American accent and laments the twists of fate that led to the SDP being absorbed by the Liberals and fading into near-obscurity. It was to take the Labour Party a further 16 years to again become a party of Government and 18 years more for it to make the same mistakes all over again. As an account of serious historical events, Waters’ play is lightweight, but it is highly enjoyable, its point being to show us that the people who make history are as flawed, fallible and comical as the rest of us. To that end, it succeeds admirably.

Performance date: 17 March 2017

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