Limehouse review at the Donmar Warehouse, London – ‘fascinating contemporary parallels’

Roger Allam in Limehouse. Photo: Jack Sain

“The Labour Party is fucked.” Steve Waters’ intelligent and timely play of debate, Limehouse, open with this line before embarking on an exploration of the events that led to the formation of the Social Democratic Party in 1981.

The ‘gang of four’ – Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers – assemble in Owen’s east London kitchen, as Waters imagines the conversation that led up to the Limehouse Declaration. Their hope was to create a new party capable of offering a credible alternative to the social vandalism of Thatcher, a party the public might actually vote for, even if it means splitting apart the existing Labour Party to do so.

It’s a fascinating period in Britain’s political history and blindingly obvious why Waters would want to revisit it now. It’s just a tad disappointing that his fictionalised account of what went on behind closed doors isn’t more energising. There’s some bickering over macaroni and cheese and some ill-advised red wine, but what we get is a very tidy debate in which everyone, effectively, passionately, if rather too cleanly, articulates their position.

It does boast some masterful performances. Roger Allam is particularly good value as Jenkins, alert to the man’s tics of speech and oratorical style. Paul Chahidi is also endearingly rumpled as Rodgers, who appears to feel most keenly the emotional cost of what they plan to do.

Director Polly Findlay projects a large clock above Alex Eales’ lovingly detailed recreation of a 1980s kitchen, but this focus on the passing of time and the imminent arrival of the press doesn’t translate into dramatic tension.

This feels like (because it was) the beginning of a bigger story. But while Waters is good at this sort of thing, like his earlier play, Temple, Limehouse has an insulated quality – the world outside feels far away.

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Though fascinating contemporary parallels abound, Steve Waters' political play lacks dramatic clout