A Wun For Their Money

A new play charting the SDP’s attempt to reshape UK politics is, fittingly, all talk and little action

Anne McElvoy

“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.

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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