Sugar high

<em>The Apprentice</em> boss is more capricious than ever.

It's series eight, and the troops march into the boardroom. Sugar looks up, vaguely harassed, as though disturbed doing some very important work in his office and not, in fact, in a TV studio in Ealing, having just got his make-up done in a trailer.

He's a fascinating man. The camera men think so too, picking up the faintest of mouth twitches, the smallest crocodilian flicker of the eyes. No-one can keep their eyes off him. He's indomitable. He's never wrong.

In fact I find I can't describe him properly without reference to the Dominican dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo. Between 1930 and 1961 he wielded complete power over his people - no-one challenged him. The source of this authority? He was irrational. The more unpredictable and capricious he was, the more insecure his subjects became.

Lord Sugar's fearsome charm resides in an ability to switch something, at random, from the category "things that are really important and obvious" to "things he just doesn't give a shit about". Whichever answer the coin flips to, he presents it with maximum aggression - cue sycophantic scrambling from everyone.

In episode one, the boys were lambasted for spending all their time talking about margins, "and ignoring the product!" They win, however, and suddenly margins were "obviously" the priority all along, idiots. "What went wrong, girls?" "The guys were very focused on their margins," plead the girls. "That's called strategy," comes the smug answer.

Mentioning humble beginnings, once a brilliant way to get Alan Sugar on side, is now apparently out. "I don't want to hear your sob story", is the new line. Now he wants "aggression" in his business partner ("if I want a friend, I'll get a dog") - but be aggressive, and you're " far too shouty".

Not that I feel too sorry for the contestants. It's just that they don't seem to have much of a chance. The formula seems to be: film them saying something (possibly with the off-camera instruction, "Can you just say something obnoxious please? Yep, that's great, yep, like that"), and then show a montage of them doing the opposite, with tuba sounds.

The sneaky rug-pulling tactics are used on us as well. So violently edited is the show that it allows radical plot twists (the team that seemed to get everything wrong wins) - and complete character changes (shrinking violet becomes team bully) - from episode to episode.

Having said that, there are a couple of nicely captured moments in episode two. Jane (Irish, shouty) spotted Maria (another one) asleep in the car. A heaven sent chance. She decided to engineer the situation, stuff of classroom nightmares, where you wake up to find yourself required to participate in a conversation you've missed. Waking Maria, she immediately asked her the (completely out of context) question "So, what do you think about that? I mean, do you have ideas ... or ..." Maria had no answer. It was brilliantly evil - and lead almost directly to Maria getting fired.

Azhar was another highlight. "People describe me as a killer whale of the sea world." That's just a regular killer whale, Azhar. That's not how metaphors work.

I won't go on, because they are indeed fish in a barrel, but then so are we for watching it.

Lord Sugar, Getty images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

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