Odd title, The Whip. The first thing it brought to my mind was that implement with which you punish horses, or people, into painful submission. The second thing was a walnut-topped chocolatey confection, which sadly was very wide of the mark. The prime relevance of the title refers to its main character, Alexander Boyd, Chief Whip of the Whig Party in 1833, when this play is set. And of course, a political Whip is named after that aforementioned instrument of torture, as they whip the other MPs into the subservient position of what the party leaders want.
A quick pre-show flick through the programme shamed me into recognising my own ignorance when it comes to the history of slavery – and, as far this play is concerned, how Parliament – eventually – brought about its abolition in Britain. I had no idea, for example, that there was a 26-year gap between passing the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act and the Slavery Abolition Act. Nor that after abolition, the Government introduced a period of “apprenticeship” for the former slaves – where in fact they carried on precisely the same work, on virtually the same conditions; today we call them interns (just joking, or am I?) The only real difference is that the Slave Owners had been recompensed handsomely for loss of stock. These apprenticeships continued for a further five years. And I certainly didn’t know that the sums paid to the Slave Owners amounted to 40% of the national budget, and the necessary borrowing to account for this didn’t get paid off until – wait for it – 2015.
It’s clear that Juliet Gilkes Romero’s new play is not only an exposé of those miserable years but also reflects parallels to Britain today. It’s emphatically not an allegory of Brexit; if it’s meant to be, it does a poor job. But there are elements that go to show that nothing is new in the world of British politics. A major project, with popular support, takes many years to be implemented. As a result of the final negotiations, a few prominent MPs and other businessmen become extraordinarily rich, whilst the country’s coffers are plundered. It takes ages for the country to regain its feet financially, the whole process creates a starting point for further political upheavals. On second thoughts, perhaps it is an allegory of Brexit.
We meet Boyd, who has befriended and adopted a younger runaway slave, Edmund, and groomed him to greatness with the possibility of a Parliamentary career. Boyd’s a good man, a principled man, with his heart in the right place; but also a practical man, who knows you have to walk before you can run. We see him in the House of Commons, surrounded by a noisy rabble and a Speaker whose pronouncements are delivered exactly like John Bercow, and he stands out as thoroughly respectable. He engages a feisty young woman, Horatia, as his cook/maid, not only because she stands up for herself, but also because her daughter was killed in a cotton-mill accident, and he feels like she is the kind of person who should be given a second chance. Also involved is the eloquent and respected ex-slave Mercy Pryce, who addresses the crowds at Speakers’ Corner, and who works with Boyd to influence thought and opinion. Whilst Mercy strives towards justice for slaves and Horatia demands votes for women, just how much will Society sit back and let all that change simply happen? And will Edmund achieve the greatness that Boyd expects of him?
Given that this is a fascinating time of history, with some remarkable people working hard to put right an inestimable wrong, which still has consequences for the world today, I was disappointed at how pedestrian and dull the first Act, in particular, turns out to be. It’s very wordy and turgid; it moves slowly and with a strange sense of worthiness. It lacks dramatic tension and that special magic. Maybe this is because the play has been constructed as a kind of Greek Tragedy; with four characters designated as The Furies, the classical deities of vengeance. There’s a scene later in the play when Boyd goes to the Commons and is beset by the Furies who bump into him and accost him and prevent him from achieving his goals. And, frankly, it looks ridiculous. Particularly as, for the most part, the Furies act as scene shifters and general gophers. It’s the Furies who, Chorus-like, wind up the story by addressing the audience directly with details of how the national debt from paying the Slave Owners wasn’t in the clear until 2015. But unlike a Greek Tragedy, we don’t have some cataclysmic ending or a deus ex machina to draw a line under the whole proceedings. The mix of contemporary political drama and stylised Greek tragedy didn’t sit well and I’m afraid I couldn’t take the Furies seriously.
Perhaps the main problem with the play – which is a brave problem and therefore to be admired – is that it is simply too ambitious, trying to tie up too many ideas, and trying to make too many associations, so that it stretches itself without resolving anything. Whilst it spends a long time establishing the characterisations of the protagonists, the story doesn’t progress much, and everything feels ponderous and cumbersome – like that really irritating table that descends and ascends throughout the whole evening as a centrepiece for many of the scenes. Never has a simple piece of furniture-shifting monopolised your sightline so much as to get in the way of telling a story.
Fortunately, there are some very good performances that just about pull you through the long three hours of this show. The double-act, if you could call them that, of Debbie Korley as Mercy Pryce and Katherine Pearce as Horatia Poskitt, provide most of the energy of the play. Ms Pearce impresses with her spiky retorts and generally bullish behaviour so that the stage brightens up when she comes on. Ms Korley’s measured and dignified performance completely challenges your preconceptions about how an ex-slave would behave.
Richard Clothier’s Boyd is also full of dignity – until he’s brought low by duplicitous colleagues – and he gives a great portrayal of a flawed, but good man in the most trying of circumstances. He also has an extraordinarily rich voice that demands your attention. John Cummins’ Cornelius Hyde Villiers is a nasty piece of work, in politics for all the wrong, self-seeking reasons, but creates a very believable person out of what otherwise could be merely a pantomime baddie. David Birrell plays Lord Maybourne, the Home Secretary, as very comfortably pompous and manipulating, a man who is naturally your (indeed, anyone’s) superior. And Tom McCall’s Bradshaw Cooper is a very credible portrayal of a difficult, tetchy, driven politician, the type we’d all like to punch on the nose.
We didn’t understand why Nicholas Gerard-Martin’s Purnell was portrayed as such a terrified, jittery idiot; and what I suspect was meant to be a largely comic scene, where he is primed for his Select Committee appearance, felt to me a bit embarrassing. And Corey Montague-Sholay’s Edmund was so refined, so reserved, so delicate and private, that I feel we never really got to know him.
I’ll be honest with you – Mrs Chrisparkle slept through at least half of the first Act and a quarter of the Second Act, which does indeed prove one thing; in waking hours, the second Act is twice as entertaining as the first. However, being bored in the theatre is the ultimate drama crime, and I can’t help but think that a play with this riveting source material and timeless relevance should have delivered a hugely greater impact. However, I always say I prefer a brave failure to a lazy success, and, given the quality of some of the performances, I have to add an extra star to what I feel this show otherwise deserves. The Whip continues in repertory at the Swan Theatre until 21st March.
Production photos by Steve Tanner