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Limehouse at Donmar Warehouse – Review

Tom Goodman-Hill (David Owen) and Nathalie Armin (Debbie Owen) in Limehouse at the Donmar Warehouse. Photo by Jack Sain
Tom Goodman-Hill (David Owen) and Nathalie Armin (Debbie Owen) in Limehouse at the Donmar Warehouse. Photo by Jack Sain

The Labour Party is f*cked!” When the opening line of a play is such a succinct summary of a major political party’s prospects we realise, immediately, that although Limehouse is set in 1981, it is going to be a resounding commentary on the state of Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour today.

Whilst this is ostensibly a historical play about politics the “history repeating itself” backdrop ensures that it is a highly-charged political drama: Corbynistas will not like Limehouse: everyone else will understand its searingly topical relevance and its undoubted contemporary application.

Playwright Steve Waters describes Limehouse as “a fictionalised account of real events”: those of us who lived through those interesting political times will testify to the accuracy of the picture he paints and the validity of the characters that are portrayed. Undoubtedly there is some dramatic licence going on here but, as in James Graham’s This House, recently seen at the Garrick, Waters neatly and convincingly fills in the gaps for us with meticulous research and an empathy for the bigger picture.

The Labour party didn’t die as a result of the Gang of Four’s SDP split three and a half decades ago but it did embark on its inexorable descent, despite Blair’s thirteen-year SDP-lite blip, into its present shambolic, terminal decline.

This time though, where are the heroes to rescue its ideology? Axis for the putative New Party that would break the mould of two party politics back then is Doctor David Owen. Strangely, I sat behind him at the National a few years back and as we left at the end of the show I politely asked “Still breaking the mould, David?”. He winked and smiled and went on his way, altogether now a much more mellow, stoical, measured and philosophical man than Tom Goodman-Hill’s self-absorbed, limelight-seeking firebrand who sees it as his mission to challenge everything and everyone who holds a different perspective to his own. Owen’s Limehouse residence is the venue for the Gang of Four’s final explosive, but decisive, meeting and we see him sitting in his kitchen in the early hours, giving himself just as much of a hard time as he gives everyone else, testing his ideas to destruction, developing his philosophies, planning his assault on the Labour Party he is about to renounce. Goodman-Hill is excellent – strident, passionate, unforgiving and ideologically driven, often viewed as too big for his boots but quite happy for his boots to walk all over any one who gets in his way. There’s no doubt that Owen’s political game-theory was to ruffle feathers, upset the applecart and let the devil take the hindmost: Goodman-Hill gets this to a tee.

Paul Chahidi (Bill Rodgers) in Limehouse at the Donmar Warehouse. Photo by Jack Sain
Paul Chahidi (Bill Rodgers) in Limehouse at the Donmar Warehouse. Photo by Jack Sain

Joker in the pack (or Gang) always appeared to be Bill Rodgers: the initial press picture, taken in Limehouse, showed the other three all neatly suited and booted whilst Rodgers, in his vaguely hip university lecturer-type garb, stuck out (to me) like a sore thumb. Waters makes the assumption that this was accidental and it probably was: other photos of the time that adorn the walls of the Donmar show Rodgers in suit and tie. But much of the humour of the piece derives from the Rodgers character and Paul Chahidi carefully squeezes out every drop of comic relief that he can from the role without ever going over the top or milking it for the sake of milking it. It’s a clever portrayal that teases out the catalytic properties of Rodgers’s involvement. Tipsily vacating the kitchen having stated that he’s not prepared to leave Labour he suddenly returns to declare “I’m in!” On such unexpected trigger moments are new parties born and Chahidi infuses his performance with the unruffled demeanour of the cautious pragmatist who is susceptible to the sudden devil may care decision.

The stardust of the new party is provided – and liberally sprinkled – by Shirley Williams. Principled, insistent, with a mischievous glint in her eye, Debra Gillett grabs everyone’s attention with her political flamboyance, her gritty eagerness for a bare-knuckle fight and her adamant refusal to take yes for an answer. It’s suggested that things may have turned out differently had Williams been cast in the leader role and that’s a moot point. What is clear here is that Gillet provides us with a portrayal of such unerring similitude that we wonder if the younger Shirley has actually come back to castigate us all.

Roger Allam (Roy Jenkins) in Limehouse at the Donmar Warehouse. Photo by Jack Sain
Roger Allam (Roy Jenkins) in Limehouse at the Donmar Warehouse. Photo by Jack Sain

Gillett is witty and scathing and compassionate and scrupulous and unscrupulous – a canny political operator who is quite prepared to do a deal (with Rodgers) behind the backs of the others and then throw him under the bus when she needs support. Gillet is like the loveable aunt who comes to visit, showers you with presents and then says “when are you coming round to dig the garden?” Williams’s conversion from her “better the devil you know”
philosophy to being prepared to go out on a limb is perfectly captured by Gillett in this inspired and uncannily precise portrayal.

The final piece in the jigsaw is the enigma that is Roy Jenkins. I’ve admired Roger Allam for many years but surely his portrayal of Jenkins in Limehouse is his pièce de résistance. I’m not sure why those with a rhotacistic tendency are often, unfortunately, christened “Woy” but the faultless depiction of Jenkins’s particular linguistic peccadillo by Allam is a wonder to behold. As are his humour-laden pauses and exquisite comic timing at such moments as when a second bottle of vintage claret is suggested. Jenkins’s appreciation of
fine wines, down to the aroma of recently rain-showered earth emanating from the cork, and the alacrity that the others all imbibe, puts in mind that – forget the SDP – perhaps this is where Champagne Socialism was born.

Debra Gillett (Shirley Williams) in Limehouse at the Donmar Warehouse. Photo by Jack Sain
Debra Gillett (Shirley Williams) in Limehouse at the Donmar Warehouse. Photo by Jack Sain

Allam is a master craftsman with the ability to hold the room with silence, mark the moment with a glance and deconstruct an argument with either nod or shake of the head. For Jenkins, the devil is in the detail and Allam shows us that the detail is the key to a great performance.

In Limehouse playwright Waters suggests that the Gang of Four was actually the Gang of Four and a bit as a fifth member of the plotting cabal is Owen’s wife Debbie, played with no little political nous, suitable American panache and mother-of-three multi-tasking dexterity by Nathalie Armin. She rescues Owen when he’s drowning in his self-inflicted bombastic pomposity, gently nudges the group towards the spirit of compromise and acts as secretary and meeting note-taker- in-chief (though it has to be said that not many notes are taken). Armin handles this difficult, inevitably subservient, role well though for my taste her coming-out-of-character afterword is unnecessary and rather patronising: if the script is good enough we will get it without the need for
such an explanatory addendum. And this script is good enough.

To the old school Socialist hard left, the Gang of Four were collectively the devil incarnate. They didn’t, in the end, break the mould though they had a pretty good stab at it. What they did have, as Polly Findlay’s high-quality direction shows us, were guts, determination, direction and above all passion.

These are all qualities that appear to be entirely absent from the current Labour Party: Limehouse is a play that all those who care about the party’s raison d’être, and continued existence as a meaningful political force, should come and see and learn from history that something apocalyptic needs to be done. Because, to use Corbyn’s own words, he and the Party are “going nowhere”.

5 Star Rating

Review by Peter Yates

The Donmar Warehouse today announces full casting for playwright Steve Waters’ searing new drama Limehouse. The play imagines what happened when the ‘Gang of Four’ met in 1981 to break away from the Labour party and form the SDP. Casting includes Roger Allam as Roy Jenkins and Tom Goodman-Hill as David Owen, joining the previously announced Paul Chahidi as Bill Rogers and Debra Gillett as Shirley Williams. Nathalie Armin will play Debbie Owen, wife of David Owen and co-host of that momentous day in east London. The production is directed by Olivier Award-winning Polly Findlay, who makes her Donmar debut.

A divisive left-wing leader at the helm of the Labour party. A Conservative prime minister battling with her cabinet. An identity crisis on a national scale.

This is Britain 1981.
One Sunday morning, four prominent Labour politicians – Bill Rodgers, Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins and David Owen – gather in private at Owen’s home in Limehouse, east London. They are desperate to find a political alternative. Should they split their party, divide their loyalties, and risk betraying everything they believe in? Would they be starting afresh, or destroying forever the tradition that nurtured them?

Steve Waters’ thrilling new drama takes us behind closed doors to imagine the personal conflicts behind the making of political history.

LIMEHOUSE is a fictionalised account of real events. It is not endorsed by the individuals portrayed.

Thursday 2 March – Saturday 15 April 2017
PRESS NIGHT: Wednesday 8 March 2017
Director Polly Findlay
Designer Alex Eales
Lighting Designer Jon Clark
Sound Designer Emma Laxton
Composer Rupert Cross
Casting includes Roger Allam, Nathalie Armin, Paul Chahidi, Debra Gillett and Tom Goodman-Hill


  • Peter Yates

    Peter has a long involvement in the theatrical world as playwright, producer, director and designer. His theatre company Random Cactus has taken many shows to the Edinburgh Fringe, the London Fringe and elsewhere and he has been associated with the Wireless Theatre Company since its inception where his short play Lie Detector can be heard: Wireless Theatre Company.

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