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FringeReview UK 2017

Low Down

Polly Findlay here takes up the Donmar tradition of close-focus political debate. Steve Waters’ Limehouse follows his 2015 Temple at the Donmar. Alex Eales’ meticulously realised Owen kitchen complete with working cooker is topped by a large digital clock like a 1981 timer projecting overhead. Jon Clark’s clean lighting, Emma Laxton’s sound and Rupert Cross’s music are so discreet you barely notice how effective they are. To April 15th.


Steve Waters’ Limehouse follows his 2015 Temple at the Donmar, as if he were shadowing David Hare’s church state and judiciary trilogy, on an intimate scale. Where Temple memorably portrayed the agon of the Dean of St Paul’s and 2011’s Occupy, Limehouse reaches farther back. A Prime Minister in conflict with her cabinet, a riven Labour party with its elder seemingly-unelectable leader dithering as left-entryists fight right wing coup-plotters. Of course it’s 1981.


Howard Davies directed Temple; there’s a joint dedication to his memory and Waters’ mother. Polly Findlay here takes up the Donmar tradition of close-focus political debate, for instance Peter Gill directing his own Versailles in 2014. The result, with Alex Eales’ meticulously realised David-and-Debbie Owen kitchen complete with working cooker, is as mesmerising as any on this stage. A large digital clock like a 1981 timer projects overhead. It works with Jon Clark’s clean lighting to point up action though one wonders if it’s essential: it’s the kind of trope the Donmar have brought in from Privacy onwards. Emma Laxton’s sound and Rupert Cross’s music are so discreet you barely notice how effective they are.


The SDP’s founding was dramatic but creating drama means side-stepping what everyone knows and quick-stepping back to exaggerate parts of it. There’s degrees of caricature in the Gang of Four (taken by British journalists from late 1970s post-Mao in-fighting). So Tom Goodman-Hill’s irascible four a.m. monster of David Owen doesn’t improve with daylight as he slices a figure of two dimensions with a sinewy nastiness. Goodman-Hill exudes Waters’ take on Owen’s egomaniacal absolutism, with an agenda and timetables laid out to ambush colleagues at every turn, mostly to the right.


But Waters suggests it’s really a Gang of Five, and Nathalie Armin’s Debbie, ever-diplomatic re-interpreting her monster’s outbursts, is more than Fifth Among Equals. It’s her loyal, repeated interventions that ensure the party gets through two bottles of expertly-placed Chateau Lafite (symbolically 1964 and 1976 vintage!) to entrap the fastidious Roy or Woy Jenkins.


Not before the others’ dynamics are set up. Bill Rodgers (yes he wrote Fourth Among Equals) bumbling, effective organiser, always treasurer and knows it, is asked to turn up at nine a.m. Paul Chahidi resonantly projects a man shrewder than his utilitarian front, embodying the heart and conscience of what’s at stake. Dramatically it’s shrewd to spring licence from the two least-known of this quintet. Their agency sashays round the monumental trio where Waters has less wiggle-room.


Contrasts between husband and wife’s political skills couldn’t be starker. Whilst David’s response to hosting is ‘Christ. OK’ Debbie Owen involves Rodgers in coffee-making (Rodgers’ ‘dispense with the incumbent’ filter paper is a blink-delicious) or later has Williams and Rodgers chopping leeks and lardons – the cut leeks hit every nostril in the house.


Owen’s pounce-and-rule falters at first bounce: the back-strained Rodgers absents himself ‘for a walk’ so when Shirley Williams turns up, the Turgenev duetting that’s a hallmark of Waters’ structure glances dynamically back and forth. Debra Gillett’s Williams exudes an incisive fence-sitting, someone who manages to embody honesty whilst withholding honest action. Like Rodgers she’s more wedded to Labour, more agonised thus more equivocal. Quite how these two politicians turn to what we know they historically did poses the greatest challenge for Waters.


When Roger Allam’s Woy finally arrives, the others’ territories are entrenched enough to register how Jenkins’ Return to the Liberals Pan-Europeanism rubs everyone up. Yet he’s essential to them, though after skirmishes only the product-placed Chateau Lafite can save the daylight. Allam’s sniffing both cork and lines are more astonishing than his bald wig, so close is the verisimilitude. ‘1964? A fine summer in the Bordeaux – but was it not somewhat wet in the Medoc during harvest?’ It’s worthy of Mycroft Holmes. Debbie’s bake from client and friend Delia Smith (a perfectly déclassé representative of who the new party should reach to) is subjected to agonizing fork-pushing.


Allam’s performance is startling both in the comedy preambles then his unstoppable high-table eloquence. You see him trounce Owen’s forthright traversal of Labour woes and alone of them his personal benefit at the hands of the party. You see him follow Williams finely balancing her dictum ‘we cannot create a party without roots’ with distaste for Owen, her fear that this party might be ‘some vanity project’ for well-heeled people like… Owen.


Jenkins’ speech is masterly in its conflation and declaration of dependence on Liberals, as an original ‘outgrowth’ of and then trading electoral pacts, work with Liberal Keynes’ economic policies; Allam makes this sound almost persuasive though it’s deeply flawed in Jenkins’ own Lib-Lab vision. Or is it? Flawed visions contain pristine politics and Waters’ play keeps returning to the compromises of the radical centre.


All through it’s Debbie’s interventions verbal or culinary that keep the Gang from breaking up before it’s bonded (even if Jenkins can’t stomach the super-homely Smith fare). The other necessary turn is Rodgers: starting from his bumbling apologias he rises to a pitch of emotive eloquence and points up the heart of their dilemma. ‘We’re sewn in our traditions like our skin… And political movements don’t start up like this, they seep up from the ground, they’re not conjured into being by high-minded folk in light-filled rooms.’ He lays out the realpolitik of stealing MPs, enduring hatred, probably wrecking their careers. Chahidi conveys the choking emotion and sheer heart of Rodgers’ dilemma.


So it’s a volte-face that having disappeared to the bathroom he rushes back with a ‘yes’ to topple William’s calibrated I’m-with-Bill ‘no’, and she departs for her own Radio 4 appearance, upstaging the infuriated Owen and his battery of invited press. There’s a further denouement, there has to be. Quite why Rodgers and Williams make their decisions isn’t clear and it’s something Waters doesn’t quite conjure: he marches his characters off to re-consider. Maybe they did but we need to hear the cogs turn.


Still having heard laughter at all the then-and-now Labour parallels the biggest comes with Jenkins considering the new party’s name: ‘New Labour’, Owen seconds it then Jenkins dismisses it as ’banal’. It gets the biggest laugh; perhaps it’s on us.


There’s a final revolution though, as left alone for a postlude Armin slips accent and talks in a coda of ‘what ifs’ begging questions we might be sceptical of or not. It’s a necessary address too, horribly timely, and perennial. How do you tell if you’re starting afresh or writing a longer suicide note than Labour’s 1983 manifesto? Even if he can’t nail the specifics of the volte-face, Waters comes tantalisingly close to defining such a political moment. With acting as superb indeed commanding as this, it’s a privilege to come away watery-eyed from raw leeks.