It is the question asked by Debbie Owen right at the end of Steve Waters’ splendid new play Limehouse at the Donmar Warehouse about the Gang of Four and the setting up of the Social Democratic Party in January 1981.
‘What if there’d been no Falklands War?’ she reflects, referring to the electoral boost that the war gave Margaret Thatcher in 1983.
‘What if Shirley had stepped up to the plate and led instead of Roy?’, she asks again. This alludes to the fact that Shirley Williams was a far more appealing and earthy politician (and party leader) than Roy Jenkins, the first SDP leader. Indeed, at one stage, before Thatcher’s emergence, she was tipped to be the country’s first female Prime Minister.
Questions, questions, questions for which there are no definitive answers.
All we now know is that the SDP is no more, having faded into oblivion in the early 1990s. A party defeated by a mix of patriotism and the country’s first past the post electoral system that fails to acknowledge close runners up.
Jenkins, sadly, is no longer with us while other gang members Bill Rodgers, David Owen and Shirley Williams have become Baron Rodgers of Quarry Bank, Lord Owen and Baroness Williams of Crosby. Success out of failure.
How the three remaining gang members would view Limehouse is unknown (none of them could be seen hiding in the audience on opening night). Waters covers his backside by stating quite clearly that Limehouse is a ‘fictionalised account of real events’ (faction) and ‘not endorsed by the individuals portrayed’.
Yet I am sure the gang of three would not be able to resist a chuckle or two at Waters’ take on events on that momentous day in January 1981 when the SDP was hatched from David and Debbie’s home in Limehouse, London.
Rodgers is delightfully played by Paul Chahidi (self-deprecating but still passionate about his Labour roots) while Tom Goodman-Hill’s David Owen is an incendiary mix of bombasity, connivance, arrogance and self-promotion. A shame he looked more like David Cameron than lady’s man Owen.
Debra Gillett skilfully portrays Shirley Williams as the principled politician she has always been. Also, a female politician with no idea about dress-sense (no thigh-high boots for Shirley, just horrible brown cardigans). Sadly, every time I looked at her, I could not help but think of Mavis Wilton (Coronation Street fame, side-kick of Rita).
Stand out star is Roger Allam as ‘Woy’. He gets Jenkins’ lisp off to a tee and looks the part.
Indeed, much of the play’s great fun is centred around pompous (but loveable) ‘Woy’. I am sure Woy would pat Allam on the back and say: ‘well done’ – if he could.
So, when Jenkins arrives late at the Owens’ home (having got lost), he immediately gives his views on German wine. ‘Should we even classify Riesling as a wine?’ he opines. ‘The exact tincture of human urine and not a little of its taste.’
He is then impressed when Debbie (sensitively played by Nathalie Armin) offers him a bottle of Chateau Lafite (1964), just as the Gang of Four is about to implode because of David Owen’s wish to railroad them into leaving the Labour Party.
‘Good year, I was Minister for Aviation’, he quips. He then smells the cork and remarks: ‘One detects the warm soil after a summer downpour. Mmmm. Now I think you [Debbie] may pour.’
Later on, a second bottle of Lafite is opened. Woy ensures that when he has a chance to pour, he reserves more for his glass although it does not stop Bill from remarking later on that he is feeling a little ‘squiffy’.
Waters has painted a wonderful montage of politics at work. The clashing of egos, scheming, brinkmanship, vacillating minds, constant need for self-publicity and the ameliorating role that Debbie (an American literary agent) played in the Gang of Four drawing up the Limehouse declaration.
What makes Limehouse so brilliant (as was This House which has just ended its run at the Garrick) is its relevance to today.
Labour schisms, hatred of the Labour leader (then, Michael Foot, now dear Jeremy) and Europe (Jenkins was a total Europhile).
There are many other aspects of Limehouse that I love – the smell of leeks being cooked by Debbie that drifted up to the Circle and sent hunger pains searing through my stomach, Debbie using a typewriter to produce the declaration (nostalgic) and Rodgers’ bad back (cured with a mix of wine and pills).
The audience also laughed out loud when Bill suggests the party they are forming should be called New Labour. ‘No, banal’, responds Woy.
Like the SDP, Limehouse has an expiry date – 15 April. Tickets are as scarce as SDP supporters. So, if you can dig one out, you will not be disappointed. Ovations all round on opening night.