Wednesday 4 October 2017

What Shadows - Review

Park Theatre, London


Written by Chris Hannan
Directed by Roxana Silbert

Amelia Donkor and Ian McDiarmid

What Shadows from Chris Hannan is a well researched fiction that weaves its narrative around the closing chapters of the real life of Enoch Powell. A Tory politician for nigh on 40 years, Powell achieved notoriety in the 1960s when, as the MP for Wolverhampton, he gave a speech predicting that racial conflict in Britain would lead to bloodshed. 

The speech polarised the nation and thereafter saw Powell reduced to a footnote in history. Hannah takes the era and projects it onto 1990s Rose (played by Amelia Donkor), a black Oxford historian who was a child in Powell’s constituency at the time of the speech and who now wants to confront the old man before he dies, seeking an explanation of the hatred that she and other people of colour, have had to endure. With the first act flitting between scenes set in 1967 and 1992, the second half is anchored in the latter year, progressing towards denouement. 

There are moments of brilliance in Hannan’s text. He captures a credible snapshot of Powell’s grammar school education and inflammatory opinions - and in Ian McDiarmid’s interpretation of the man, he has also quite possibly achieved one of the finest performances to be seen in London this year. McDiarmid embodies the voice and stature of the man to a tee and after the interval, when we find an ageing Powell tackling the challenges of Parkinsons Disease, McDiarmid’s work is nothing short of astonishing.

Elsewhere, Hannan’s work is inconsistent. He is at his finest in the 1967 vignettes, where his work delivers an uncomfortable snapshot of the racism prevalent in Britain at the time. The 1992 scenes however lack a credibility, especially in a tepid attempt at paradox that sees Rose discovering that as a young child she too may have engaged in racist behaviour (though Donkor is far more convincing in the brief moments we see her portraying her1960’s mother Joyce).

Rose’s sense of smarting indignation at wanting to confront a demon of her youth is palpable - however while Hannan harnesses the wrongs of Powell’s racism, he fails to address the portentous nature of some of the politician’s words. For example nowhere in Hannan’s script is there a reference to the decades of the bungled and mismanaged municipal multiculturalism that gave rise to the (relatively) recently discovered nightmares of Rochdale and Rotherham.

There is strong supporting work in the company. The always excellent Nicholas Le Prevost makes the best he can of Clem, a journalist and a conscientiously-objecting Quaker, who, while one of Powell’s closest friends, serves as little more in the play than a poorly fleshed out liberal hypocrite. Paula Wilcox doubles up (very well) both as Clem’s wife Marjorie, appalled at her husband’s pandering to Powell and perceptively (in the 1960s scenes at least) as Grace, a white racist neighbour of Joyce and Rose. Ameet Chana’s Sultan, another neighbour (Muslim) is a further example of excellent acting, but in a role that seems to have been lifted straight out of a 1970s television sitcom. 

The contemporary arguments may be clumsy, but there is solid and uncomfortable history to be observed in What Shadows, with its portrayal of Britain some 50 years ago proving a well observed snapshot. It is, however, McDiarmid’s performance that is the beating heart of this play. His astonishing performance and interpretation makes for compelling theatre.

Runs until 28th October
Photo credit: Mihaela Bodlovic

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