Review: Limehouse, Donmar Warehouse

“The Labour Party is fucked”

I know a bit about a few things but for some reason, UK politics has never figured that highly on the list. So whilst Steve Waters’ new play Limehouse might well be familiar territory for the vast majority of the matinee audience I saw this with, for me it was a bit of a history lesson. It was also a bit of a challenge as I’d skipped lunch and the smell of the pasta bake being made onstage left me near-ravenous!

Limehouse follows a small group of Labour politicians as they despair at the militant leftwing direction their party is taking and try to decide what, if anything, they can do about it. Perhaps not accidentally, parallels can be drawn with the situation at the moment but this drama is set in 1981 and the quartet are Bill Rodgers, Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins and David Owen – the Gang of Four who went on to form the SDP.

Any doubts I might have had about being ill-informed were soon covered by the fact that this is an extremely wordy play, the four – plus Owen’s wife Debbie – essentially chew the cud around the kitchen table, filling us in on the socio-political landscape and gearing up for intermittent, individual barnstorming moments. There’s a lot of speechifying and director Polly Findlay mitigates this by casting to the hilt but there’s still something inherently undramatic about it all.

At the expense of action, there’s a false sense of jeopardy about whether they’ll make the break or not which doesn’t quite satisfy. And the final scene when Nathalie Armin’s Debbie breaks the fourth wall to tell us about what did happen and what might yet happen further highlights the staidness of the play. But Paul Chahidi, Debra Gillett, Tom Goodman-Hill, and Roger Allam offer up some wonderful character studies to make it most entertaining (even if I still wouldn’t pick UK politics as a pub quiz category).

Running time: 105 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 15th April

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