by David Ward
The very first words of this play take you immediately into a political drama which feels both historic and immediate.
Following hot on the heels of Headlong’s This House about Labour’s travails in Government in the late 1970s, Steve Waters’ new play brings us the next episode. Limehouse re-imagines the events leading to the 1981 Limehouse Declaration which led four Labour MPs to form the Social Democratic Party.
Going behind the scenes to an apparently faithful replica of David Owen’s 1980’s kitchen, it is a fascinating exploration not just of the period but of politics and politicians behind closed doors.
First there are the personalities. Roy Jenkins, the donnish champion of a broad left/liberal tradition with a taste for fine food and wine, brings to mind some in our current generation from Mandelson to Tristram Hunt. Roger Allam, who many will recognise as Peter Mannion from the The Thick of It, brings him to life along with excellent comic timing.
Shirley Williams is the indefatigable stalwart of Labour’s right resisting the Bennite left on the NEC. Torn between the worsening situation and the party she has grown up in and inherited from her parents. Bill Rodgers is portrayed as a mild mannered political fixer, comfortable across the union movement or CLP tensions and reluctant to step down from a left leaning shadow cabinet.
While Owen is the “hot-head” desperate for action not words, distrusted by the others for his ambition and middle class professional background. Williams even suggests the Owen’s kitchen is too bourgeois. At least he didn’t have two. Yet these accusations would become familiar to Blair only a few years later.
Then there are the issues it raises, many of which call to us down the ages.