In the Critics this week

Pullman on fairy tales, Englund on war and Clee on an ebook Christmas.

In the Critics section of this week's double issue New Statesman, author Philip Pullman takes on our guest-editor Richard Dawkins and muses over why fairy tales are good for children. Pullman addresses Dawkins's worry that reading fairy tales to children "might lead to an anti-scientific cast of mind, in which people were prepared to believe that things could change into other things". Pullman writes: "Stories of every kind, from the most realistic to the most fanciful, have nourished their imagination and helped shape their moral understanding... Children whose parents take the trouble to sit and read with them will grow up to be more fluent and confident not only with language but with pretty well any kind of intellectual activity, including science. And children who are deprived of... the world of stories are not likely to flourish at all."

In the Books Interview, Jonathan Derbyshire talks to Peter Englund about his new book, The Beauty and the Sorrow, which is about the First World War. According to Englund, "The form and the language used will remind readers more of those used by a novelist rather than the kind used by a historian writing a textbook." He says that his book is about more than just the Western Front; for example, "the impact of the war in Africa showed for the first time the cracks in the monolith of colonialism."

Former editor of the Bookseller Nicholas Clee laments that "one thing is for sure: it will not be a print-book Christmas" due to the dominance of ebooks. Clee poses the question: "Should we, as readers, be delighted that books, already widely discounted, are getting cheaper still as the digital revolution spreads?" He observes that "in place of the social experience of browsing in bookshops, we will have the social media experience of sharing our tastes through Facebook and Twitter."

Also in Critics: Kate Atkinson offers an exclusive short story, Darktime and Richard J Evans praises Peter Longerich's scholarly biography of Heinrich Himmler. Ryan Gibley is left looking for answers after watching Carol Morley's film Dreams of a Life and Rachel Cooke rounds up Christmas TV. Plus: Andrew Billen on The Ladykillers, Will Self's Real Meals, Antonia Quirke on the best Christmas radio and a poem by the late Christopher Logue.

Donmar Warehouse
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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution