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REVIEW: The Whip, RSC ★★★

Richard Clothier as Alexander Boyd. Photo Steve Tanner/RSC
Richard Clothier as Alexander Boyd. Photo Steve Tanner/RSC

Powerful and worthy play

Gill Sutherland reviews The Whip, The Swan Theatre, until 21st March

Katherine Pearce as Horatia Poskitt. Photo: Steve Tanner/RSC
Katherine Pearce as Horatia Poskitt. Photo: Steve Tanner/RSC

It seems incredible that a mere 200 years ago millions of African people were enslaved, shipped over the Atlantic (during which an estimated two million perished in the horrific conditions) to work on plantations where they were subject to further inhuman treatment. All to make fat cats fatter and richer.

Britain’s slave trade is not often the subject of reflection, so thank God for The Whip, a vital play that really shines a light on the morality of economics and asks who we are while exploring how slavery was abolished in the UK.

Written by Juliet Gilkes Romero, the text bristles with spirit and passion – without being too preachy – and is full of clever classical references, believable dialogue and neat speeches. She does a particularly fine job of turning historical fact into an entertaining drama, assisted by some assured direction from Kimberley Sykes. It feels like a classic period drama, but with schmaltz removed and replaced by political verve.

Set at the dawn of social reform laws in England, the play examines the fight to pass the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act. Whig Party Chief Whip Alexander Boyd (Richard Clothier) is attempting to steer the Bill through parliament; however, he must contend with the Tories, public opinion, and ultimately, his conscience.

Debbie Korley as Mercy Pryce. Photo: Steve Tanner/RSC
Debbie Korley as Mercy Pryce. Photo: Steve Tanner/RSC

Behind the scenes, runaway slaves Mercy Pryce (Debbie Korley), Edmund (Corey Montague-Sholay), and ex-cotton worker Horatia Poskitt (Katherine Pearce) unleash their own competing battles to improve the conditions for those not yet heard in parliament.

Meanwhile, slave-owning Home Secretary Lord Maybourne (David Birrell), who insists the Bill will be a moral victory which serves British democracy without bloodshed in the colonies or at home, has rival political ambitions of his own.

It’s a complex, demanding drama – there’s a hell of a lot to take in. Romero sweetens the hard graft of the political history stuff with the personal accounts of Mercy, Edmund and Horatia. And for the most part these first person stories excellently off-set the political machinations and historical events set forth – in particular the women’s harrowing accounts of their servitude and suffering, which include the death of a child in the cotton mill. Korley and Pearce both give incredibly strong performances, and these scenes are riveting. I found the Edmund narrative less convincing – clever and ambitious, he is adopted by Boyd as an unpaid secretary. His subsequent revolt draws the plot off in yet another tangent that seems woolly and unnecessary.

More successful – weirdly – is the action set in parliament. The set is simple and brilliant – designed by Ciaran Bagnall, it is all atmospherically-lit sleek wood; the Swan’s interior completing the House of Commons vibe. The fraught and riotous scenes where the politicians bash things out based on self-interest is great and captivating in a West Wing-esque way.

Ultimately the only problem with The Whip is it tries a little too hard. Less would be so much more. It wants to include all the amazing facts, all the stories, all the passion… and it is undoubtedly a worthy mission. But it goes on a little too long (three hours) and tries to tell too many stories, and switches scenes just too many times.

For example, it wants to get in the astounding fact that the only way to push through the Abolition Act was to pay off the plantation owners, which meant borrowing money that the British Government only paid off in 2015. At the end of the play the actors come out of character to recite this and other facts. It felt clunky and awkward, which is a shame because really my cogs were already whirring at full-steam, these extra nuggets of fact were an unwelcome wafer thin mint after a heavy load.

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