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The central weakness of the play is that it is all talk and very little action — very like the entity it commemorates. The most dynamic movement that we get occurs when lunch is cooked live on stage, the frying bacon making us all hungry in the stalls. Shirley heads off to do a BBC interview, looks dubious about the prospect of delivering a new political hybrid — and then comes back again, saying that she’s up for joining. It’s not exactly the stuff of clenched theatrical anticipation and wanders close to bathos when the most thrilling moment of the Limehouse Declaration turns on whether to call the party Labour-plus-something or (wait for it) Social Democrat.

In fairness, Waters has concentrated the foundational story on a single day for a reason: two or more in the company of this bunch would have made Tories or Trots out of most of us. David (now Lord) Owen tells me that the Limehouse lunch date was “about the only time the four of us did get on well”. The only truly bad judgment is the boilerplate ending: a sententious and improbable “what if?” scenario in which the Falklands War does not take place and by some improbable alchemy Mrs Thatcher loses the 1983 election.

The truer legacy of the Limehouse experiment is as a warning, rather than a thwarted promise. Today’s Labour moderates learned from it that a first-past-the-post election system makes it devilishly hard to break away from established parties — even when they are failing and splitting. In less than two hours, Limehouse lets us sense why the SDP-Liberal alliance could never succeed, but why in 1983 an awful lot of people (a quarter of the vote share in the general election) hoped that it might.

The clashes of ideology and conflicting value systems against the grander canvas of world war and revolution are captured in Tom Stoppard’s evergreen Travesties, at the Apollo until April 29, an exhibition of his ability in his prime to weave artful tapestries of art, ideology, fateful chance and flat-out parody. More than 40 years after the drama first tangled with the crazy whirl of Bohemians, officials, spies and revolutionaries living cheek-by-jowl in Switzerland in 1917, it still sparkles under Patrick Marber’s direction.

The transfer from the Menier Chocolate Factory rolls the action along in vaudeville manner. The core challenge of Travesties, however, is walking the line between send-up and sense without teetering into self-indulgence. As Henry Carr, Tom Hollander burnishes his reputation as an actor accomplished at playing ambiguity. The doddery old man embroiders tales of a modest career as embassy consul into a vainglorious account of his role in shaping 20th-century events. The real Henry Carr and James Joyce really did have a legal skirmish about footing the bill for an amateur dramatics production of The Importance of Being Earnest. Lenin really did work in the Zurich Library while awaiting the revolutionary moment.

Embedded in the verbal hoopla and arty jests is a solid argument about the point of art and how we understand it against the backdrop of history. As the Dadaist dandy Tristram Tzara, Freddie Fox exudes a dark Mephistophelean glitter. Joyce (Peter McDonald) is a debt-dodging rogue played to the Oirish hilt. But it is his character who nails the limits of Marxist theory in a speech that sounds like the trenchant Stoppard of the 1970s arguing against trendy Eng Lit colleagues. For what, his Joyce asks, is the significance of the Trojan Wars, once reduced to mere economics? “Greek merchants looking for new markets — a minor redistribution of broken pots.” It is the Odyssey that they left us that matters. Among the travesties here lurk some eternal truths.
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