The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 2nd March, 2020
This cracking new play by Juliet Gilkes Romero is set in the politically turbulent year of 1833, when the abolition of slavery is in the air but, as we learn from the politicking and the shenanigans on display, passing the Act through Parliament comes at an enormous financial cost (with the public purse compensating the supposedly hard-done-by slave owners for their loss of income!). We also learn that abolition does not necessarily lead to emancipation; it is posited that liberated slaves will have to work a seven-year unpaid ‘apprenticeship’. What price freedom, eh?
At the forefront of the wheeling and dealing is Lord Alexander Boyd, the Chief Whip (the play’s title has a double meaning, you see!) presented in a charismatic performance from silver fox Richard Clothier, the richness of whose voice is superbly suited to the corridors of power. Boyd is a man trying to do his best for his fellow man, although it soon becomes apparent that his views of ‘our negro brothers’ are limited within the attitudes of the era. Clothier is a commanding stage presence, giving us the strengths and frailties of the man in public and in private.
As Boyd’s assistant, the runaway slave Edmund, Corey Montague-Sholay is dignified and empathetic. Beneath his ‘civilised’ veneer lies heartrending loss, having been torn away from his family and his culture.
As chirpy Northerner Horatia Poskitt, Katherine Pearce almost steals the show with some delightfully comedic moments as she tries to fit into her new role as Boyd’s housekeeper. This renders her grief over a daughter, horrifically killed in a cotton mill, all the more effective.
As runaway slave and abolitionist Mercy Pryce, Debbie Korley holds her own in this white man’s world, detailing a harrowing account of the abuse she suffered in slavery (amping up the Jamaican accent to suit her Hyde Park Corner audience) while comporting herself with dignity and righteousness – making a fine contrast with John Cummins as despicable Tory Cornelius Hyde-Villiers; boorish and crass, he’s out for the biggest bail-out he can get.
David Birrell shows the arrogance of entitlement as conniving Home Secretary, Lord Maybourne, holding out offers of high office as inducements, while being riddled with hypocrisy: he purports to be an abolitionist but is a proud slave owner himself. Politics still attracts the same kind of people today, alas!
What the play demonstrates is that the ruling elite haven’t changed a jot over the centuries and that decisions taken, ostensibly for economic reasons, are rooted in deep-seated racism: the freed slaves will be “too lazy” to earn a living, is just one example dredged up in support of the unjust apprentice scheme.
In a range of minor roles, other actors from ‘The Furies’ an ever-present chorus, observing the action. These include Riad Richie, marvellous as the Speaker of the House, and the ever-captivating Bridgitta Roy. Nicky Shaw’s costumes make this an attractively clad period piece, while a superlative quartet of musicians performs Akintayo Akinbode’s stirring Beethoven-informed score to perfection.
Director Kimberley Sykes maintains quite a pace; the characters lay out their arguments, moral and otherwise, with clarity and passion. It all makes for an engaging and entertaining polemic. We can be appalled by the attitudes of the past, but it doesn’t take another bankers’ bailout to remind us that such conduct is still prevalent today. “The citizens with all the power are hurting those with none,” we are told. Ain’t it the truth!