What a difference a postcode makes. In Convent Garden’s Donmar Warehouse theatre, designated as WC2H, you can see a sweet and even charming play about the origins of the short-lived Social Democratic Party (SDP), which was set up as an alternative to Britain’s dominant Labour and Tory parties in 1981. It was founded by the so-called Gang of Four: Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams. Meanwhile, at the Soho Theatre in neighbouring W1D, cabaret artist Lucy McCormick is staging an obscene re-enactment of the New Testament in which, as Jesus, she is vividly finger-fucked by the doubting disciple, Thomas.
It’s hard to imagine two more different shows, yet they both speak eloquently – if not always knowingly – to the social and political malaise of our times.
Steve Waters’s play Limehouse at the Donmar is set in David Owen’s docklands home at a time when that part of the East End was just beginning to be redeveloped by the emerging yuppie classes. Owen is found having a crisis of faith, forcefully expressed by the play’s opening line: ‘The Labour Party’s fucked!’ Teeing us off with an easy laugh, this is a passionately cosy piece of work which sees the Gang of Four converging on Owen’s house as they launch their short-lived attempt to seize what they perceive to be the empty centre ground of British politics.
Tom Goodman-Hill’s David Owen is incandescently moderate, and is persuaded by the formidable Nathalie Armin as his American publisher wife Debbie to convene the meeting and save the nation’s political life. First arrives Paul Chahidi’s good-natured Bill Rodgers who is presented as an old-school working-class Labour man from a long line of honourable Labour men. His crisis over betraying his party is translated into a case of acute sciatica after he opens a bottle of Chateau Lafite 1964. Then along comes omni-cheery Shirley Williams, powering good sense into the occasion, before the terrific Roger Allam finally pitches up as the frightfully posh but thoroughly clubbable European Commission president, Roy Jenkins.
The discussions that follow are meant to shadow our own times, with a Tory Party in the ascendancy, untroubled by a divided Labour Party nominally led by an inept and ineffectual old man (Michael Foot). Parallels with today need little exposition, but there are also amusing political insights. One such is how for the Tories the only crime is failure, whereas the Labour Party is closer to a religion, treating dissenters as heretics and apostates. Waters writes with warmth and intelligence about each of his characters, but the truth remains that those times don’t entirely map on to our own, not least because of the Heraclitian wisdom that you cannot step into the same river twice.