THE WHIP HAND
The Door, Birmingham REP, Wednesday 6th September, 2017
Dougie (Jonathan Watson) is gathering family members to celebrate his 50th birthday – he has an agenda, a presentation to make. The venue is his ex-wife’s house and Dougie is welcomed by her second husband, Lorenzo (Richard Conlon) who is a bit of a liberal and a smoothie with a penchant for artisanal ale. Running tech support for his uncle is Aaron (Michael Abubakar), Dougie’s mixed-race nephew. Completing the party are the ex-wife Arlene (Louise Ludgate) and the daughter she shares with Dougie, Molly (Joanne Thomson). The nature of these relationships emerges along with the purpose of Dougie’s presentation… He has received an email from an organisation that seeks reparation for the evils of the slave trade – it turns out Dougie is a descendant of a sugar-beet millionaire and slave master. Prompted by white-man’s guilt and his milestone birthday, Dougie wants to do some good in the world, and has come to ask Arlene to sign over Molly’s college fund.
This production in partnership with Traverse Theatre Company and the National Theatre of Scotland provides a powerful 90 minutes of drama, laced with barbed humour and performed by a strong cast of five who each get their moments to shine, thanks to Douglas Maxwell’s taut and thought-provoking script. Jonathan Watson is great as the volatile Dougie, contrasting nicely with Richard Conlon’s smooth-talking Lorenzo. Louise Ludgate impresses as the sarcastic, impassioned Arlene, who has good reason to be cynical and short-tempered where Dougie is concerned, while Joanne Thomson’s Molly goes on a journey of discovery as secrets from the past are wrenched to the fore. Michael Abubakar’s outbursts as Aaron add intensity to proceedings.
Director Tessa Walker draws us into the play’s discourse first with the amusing naturalism of a comedy of manners, and keeps us hooked with seething animosity, spoken and unsaid. We suspect from the start the email is some kind of scam but the argument it provokes (that the world we live in is built on the atrocities perpetrated by slavers) is potent – although we don’t agree with Dougie’s means to redress ancient evils.
When the true nature of the scam comes to light, we see that the evils that need redressing aren’t so evil, as Aaron learns the truth about his father’s absence.
Darkly comic and provocative, the piece is in danger of letting its argument overpower our attachment to the characters – it’s one of those where you admire the performers but detest the dramatis personae. A good advertisement for family gatherings, it is not! And it shows us that racism, unlike the slave trade, is not a thing of the past.
A slanging match with bite and substance, The Whip Hand stirs up big themes in a domestic setting. The personal is political and there is nothing more personal nor political than the bitter quarrels of family members.