Friday, 17 March 2017
This kitchen-sink drama goes behind the scenes on the formation of the Social Democratic Party
Written by Georgina BrownAmerican Debbie Owen, a literary agent, confesses in the new play Limehouse she never intended to marry a Brit, a doctor or a politician. Yet she married all three in Dr David Owen – the dishy, arrogant, tricky member of the ‘Gang of Four’, nickname of the Labour moderates behind the Social Democratic Party (SDP).
Perhaps that should have been five, for in Steve Waters’ play, it was Mrs Owen who literally cooked up the SDP in January 1981, in the Owens’ river-view kitchen in Limehouse (they were pioneers in the middle-class migration to East London). It was she, after all, who suggested hosting the lunch of a ‘warm, companionable’ macaroni cheese, jazzed up with a creamy sauce and a topping of breadcrumbs – a new recipe from a client, ‘a certain Delia Smith’ – and a bottle of Château Lafite, Roy Jenkins’s favourite tipple, as well as instructing her easily irritated husband to show his guests he ‘loves each one of them’.
Delia’s dish goes down a treat with Dhirley Williams, whose cold suppers suggest she was not much of a cook. An enthusiastic Bill Rodgers has seconds and says, ‘maybe she embodies the spirit of what we’re about. Declassé, pragmatic,’ which sounds spot on to me.
I have to declare a bit of an interest in all this. When I married my husband a week before the General Election in 1983, he was standing for the SDP in Dudley East, in the West Midlands. We had a honeymoon night in Wales and then he returned to the hustings. I went back to work in London. The SDP won 25 per cent of the total vote. My husband stood again in 1987 (another bronze medal) and we all went on hoping and canvassing until the SDP crashed out in the 1990s and ever since, but more so since Brexit, we’ve been wondering, ‘What if?’
Limehouse is a good but not a great play, lacking real drama and failing to be more than about anything but itself. But it tells a fascinating chapter of history, powerfully demonstrating how four people come to the same position – anti-Left, pro-Europe, anti-CND – with each eloquently explaining their very different path to get there.
In Polly Findlay’s brilliantly performed production, Roger Allam’s quietly ‘wancorous Woy’ Jenkins swills words as he swills wine. A delicious Debra Gillett makes Dame Shirley Williams the national treasure she is. Tom Goodman-Hill is every inch the exasperated patrician Lord Owen continues to be. And Paul Chahidi’s Bill Rodgers, the least well known of the four, turns out to be a Marmite-sandwich and gin-loving, passionate politician – and a real sweetie.
Until 15 April at Donmar Warehouse, Earlham Street, London WC2: 0844-871 7624, www.donmarwarehouse.com