Wednesday, 4 October 2017
Review What Shadows
A portrait of a politician notorious for his views on race relations provides Francis Beckett with a telling glimpse of 20th century post colonial Britain.
by Chris Hannan
His Country, Right Or Wrong
One of the watershed moments in community relations in Britain – perhaps the most important one – was a widely publicised speech by a senior Conservative, the MP for Wolverhampton South West, Enoch Powell, in 1968.
He quoted a constituent as saying: “In this country in 15 or 20 years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.”
He talked of a white woman going to the shops and being followed by “children, charming, wide-eyed, grinning picaninnies.” He said: “We must be mad, literally mad, as a nation to be permitting the annual inflow of some 50,000 dependents.”
Chris Hannan’s What Shadows is a serious and thoughtful play about Powell himself, the circumstances in which the speech came to be made, and the effect it had.
To the author’s great credit, he does not take the easy and widely accepted route, in which Powell is at worst a monster, at best a man cynically or foolishly unleashing monstrous forces, and Powell’s opponents are, universally, defenders of decency.
The play sets out its stall quickly, opening with a scene years after the Powell speech in which a distinguished black academic goes in search of a white colleague whose career she once helped ruin for expressing sympathy with Powell.
Both are performed here with just the right mix of rage and cynicism by, respectively, Amelia Dankor and Joanne Pearce. They agree to team up and try for an interview with the now very elderly politician.
When we meet Powell, he is picnicking with his wife and their old friends Clem and Marjorie Jones. The story of the friendship and the falling out between the Powells and the Joneses is a true one.
Clem Jones was editor of the Wolverhampton Express and Star: a warm human being, but a man who in the end put his principles before both his career and his friendships.
Indeed, playwright Chris Hannan acknowledges the help of Clem Jones’s son Nick, a former BBC industrial and political correspondent and a man known, as his father was, for the sort of integrity that sometimes infuriates editors and politicians.
Nicholas Le Prevost and Paula Wilcox are excellent as the Joneses, an entirely believable couple whose fate we care about. Joanne Pearce plays Powell’s wife (combining it with her role as the white academic) and does it well.
However I was not quite as convinced by Ian McDiarmid’s Powell.
He looks right, and in the first act at least he sounds right. And yet, for me, he wasn’t quite right. Powell had a markedly deliberate manner and an elaborate stillness.
In contrast, McDiarmid has him moving restlessly all the time, sometimes gabbling a bit, sometimes even seeming a little camp.
Roxana Silbert directs with sensitivity and authority, though, occasionally, she has her actors shouting a little too much and the play gets just a little too wordy towards the end.
However, despite my rather uncomfortable perch on the Park's vertiginous balcony, this proved to be a gripping evening. It's an amber/green light for a finely-crafted, thought-provoking and important play.