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“The man’s a relic”: Roger Allam as Roy Jenkins in “Limehouse” at the Donmar (©Jack Sain)

An evening spent charting the founding story of the SDP, a middle England, middle-class, middle-everything party that enjoyed a brief heyday in the 1980s, might sound like the dramatic equivalent of a sleeping pill. But the small canvas appeals to Steve Waters, a dramatist who likes to pull wider meaning out of niche events (he previously gave us a slyly revealing saga of the spat between the Occupy movement and St Paul’s cathedral in Temple).

Limehouse, at the Donmar until April 15, sends us down the time portal to 1981, the year of Coe and Ovett, Adam and the Ants, and Charles and Diana’s nuptials. Margaret Thatcher rules, albeit not yet in full Gloriana pomp. Michael Foot is at the helm of a Labour Party that has embraced an unelectable leader with undeliverable policies and the bullies of the hard Left in control. Parallels with Planet Corbyn in 2017 ring loud and clear.

The setting is the fashionably nouveau house of David and Debbie Owen in the East End, and set designer Alex Eales cannot be faulted on the detail. It’s all melamine cupboards and uncomfortable designer chairs. We are, touchingly, in an era when a pasta bake from the exciting Delia Smith cookbook is deemed such an outré departure from Sunday lunch that it requires Debbie Owen (a sparky Nathalie Armin), to weigh out the pasta on her Habitat scales.

As handsome, swaggery Dr Owen, Tom Goodman-Hill exudes assurance, coupled with an abrasive ability to put everyone else on edge. A new party sounds like a great idea until you start to figure out who might actually run it. “The man’s a relic,” spits Owen when it is suggested that Roy Jenkins (a dapper Roger Allam) should take the lead as the most experienced of the bunch. But relics are useful when addressing what Owen describes as the permanent “design flaw in Labour”. Together, the motley crew need to forge a bridge to third-party politics — and a way to draw the Liberal vote to the cause.

In wanders Woy Jenkins, with his erudite rhotacisms and jokes about Chateau Lafite, all the while aware that he has been out of the fray as European Commissioner while the progressive Left succumbed to hijack by hardliners. Shirley Williams (Debra Gillett) arrives in a hideous tank top and brown skirt ensemble. “Very jazzy,” says Debbie delicately. The personal and political asymmetry of the Gang of Four is well-drawn. Shirley and Bill Rodgers (a rumpled David Chahidi) are old Oxford Labour Clubbers, desperate to save the soul and purpose of the people’s party. Jenkins hankers to revive a muscular Liberalism of the kind that inspired his father during the General Strike. There’s a hint of the bitter future schisms and eventual death-by-merger with the Liberals in the Labour SDP-ers’ quest to preserve the Labour tradition, while Jenkins reaches back to a bygone world of Asquith and Lloyd George.

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