Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

 

Film

Independent Cinemas - Berberian sound studio, 31 August

Following up his lauded debut, Katalin Varga, Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio is being called the stand-out film at this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival. Gilderoy (Toby Jones) is a reserved but prominent sound engineer employed by director Santini (Antonio Mancino) to create the soundtrack to his hammy horror film. In the claustrophobic studio, Gilderoy sets to the gruesome work of mutilating vegetables in facsimile of on-screen violence, yet as his psychological strain makes itself known boundaries start to blur.

Art

Southbank Centre – Unlimited, 30 August – 9 September

The Olympics and art have had a close relationship ever since 1912, when art competitions figured as part of the games. Timed to coincide with this year’s Paralympics, Unlimited is a Southbank exhibition that has invited deaf and disabled artists to push themselves to reach previously unattained goals. Consisting of 29 commissions, Unlimited's range includes dance, live arts, visual arts, music and theatre.

Book

Mortality – Christopher Hitchens, 1 September

When author and former New Statesman staffer Christopher Hitchens died last December, a wave of tributes came from public figures as diverse as Tony Blair, Richard Dawkins and Martin Amis. His 13th and final book, Mortality, is published this Saturday. An exploration of how his cancer was "deporting" him “from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady”, Mortality is a haunting account of one man lucidly examining his on coming death.

TV

BBC1 - Dr who 1 September, 7.20

In this weeks New Statesman, Alwyn W Turner examines the Daleks’ history as SF representations of the Nazi in time for the new Dr Who series, which will land on British TV screens this Saturday. At the ripe old age of 49, the cry of "Exterminate!" is getting a little tired, though we’ve been told that celebrated writer Steven Moffat has found an original angle to teach old Daleks new tricks - for the first time in the show's history they need Dr Who’s help.

Festival

Granary Square - King’s Cross Ice cream Festival, 1-2 September

Did you know that Carlo Gatti, the man who brought who brought ice cream to England, lived in King’s Cross? From his house he sold his famous "penny licks", which will be brought back by the Kings Cross Ice Cream Festival this weekend. As well as celebrating the history of the treat, the free festival will showcase the best of London ice cream and offer visitors the opportunity to be inducted into the craft all the way from milking the cow to the first lick.

Ice cream eating, which there will be plenty of opportunity to do at Kings Cross Ice Cream Festival (Image: Getty)
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