Nu­anced por­trayal of a time of dark­ness

Sunday Herald Life - - THEATRE REVIEWS - Re­viewed by Mark Brown

What Shad­ows

Royal Lyceum, Ed­in­burgh Un­til Septem­ber 23

The Steamie

Seen at Adam Smith Theatre, Kirk­caldy Tour­ing un­til Novem­ber 11

CHRIS Han­nan is one of the most im­por­tant drama­tists that Scot­land has ever pro­duced. The au­thor of such plays as El­iz­a­beth Gor­don Quinn and Shin­ing Souls, he helped pave the way for the writ­ers, such as David Greig, Zin­nie Har­ris, David Har­rower and An­thony Neilson, who brought in­ter­na­tional recog­ni­tion to Scot­tish play­writ­ing in the 1990s.

Like some of the au­thors who fol­lowed him, Han­nan’s work has of­ten emerged in the English the­atri­cal con­text as well as the Scot­tish. It is ap­pro­pri­ate, there­fore, that his lat­est play,

What Shad­ows, should grap­ple with the mod­ern his­tory of na­tional and eth­nic iden­tity in Bri­tain. Di­rected by Rox­ana Sil­bert for the Birm­ing­ham Rep, the drama (which pre­miered in Birm­ing­ham in Oc­to­ber of last year) focuses upon the right-wing, Bri­tish na­tion­al­ist politi­cian Enoch Pow­ell. Shift­ing back-and-forth be­tween the 1960s and the 1990s, the piece hinges on the in­fa­mous “rivers of blood” speech Pow­ell made in Birm­ing­ham in 1968, in which he warned of a bloody civil war in the UK if non-white im­mi­gra­tion were not stopped and, by im­pli­ca­tion, re­versed.

The play is built of two con­verg­ing nar­ra­tives. One in­volves the tor­tured friend­ship be­tween the Pow­ells (Enoch and his wife Pamela) and the Jone­ses (Pow­ell’s jour­nal­ist friend Clem and his wife Mar­jorie). The other fol­lows the fic­tive field re­search of Rose Cruick­shank (a black Ox­ford aca­demic who was brought up in Pow­ell’s con­stituency in Wolver­hamp­ton) and Sofia Ni­col (a white for­mer aca­demic forced out of Ox­ford fol­low­ing ac­cu­sa­tions of racism, lev­elled by Cruick­shank, among oth­ers).

For the most part Han­nan’s play nav­i­gates its sen­si­tive and weighty sub­ject with a com­pelling, foren­sic the­atri­cal­ity. The in­tel­lec­tual and moral joust­ing be­tween Enoch Pow­ell and Clem Jones is rem­i­nis­cent of the ar­gu­ments be­tween the nu­clear physi­cists Niels Bohr and Weiner Heisen­berg in Michael Frayn’s drama Copen­hagen.

Cruick­shank and Ni­col’s project (to in­ter­view Pow­ell af­ter trac­ing some of the peo­ple who Cruick­shank lived be­side in the late 1960s) seems un­likely, and the black pro­fes­sor’s sud­den and com­plete de­nun­ci­a­tion of her child­hood self stretches one’s credulity too far. How­ever, this plot line does al­low Han­nan to build a cred­i­ble, hu­man, some­times hu­mor­ous pic­ture of the growth of mod­ern mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism in the West Mid­lands of Eng­land.

Sil­bert’s pro­duc­tion is played on a sim­ple set, with a few trees evok­ing a park or a for­est, and care­fully em­ployed, un­ob­tru­sive projections evok­ing other lo­ca­tions as and when re­quired. It boasts a uni­ver­sally fine cast, in­clud­ing Amelia Donkor (ex­cel­lent as both Rose Cruik­shank and, back in the 1960s, her mother Joyce) and Ni­cholas Le Prevost (cap­ti­vat­ing as Clem Jones, caught be­tween his Quaker moral­ity and his per­sonal loy­alty to Pow­ell).

The sun around which the en­tire play re­volves is, of course, the char­ac­ter of Pow­ell him­self. He is played with bril­liant un­der­stand­ing and nu­ance by the great Ian McDiarmid.

Here is the Pow­ell who, as a Con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment min­is­ter in the 1950s, en­cour­aged im­mi­gra­tion from Bri­tain’s for­mer colonies and voted, in 1967, for the de­crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion of male ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity; in one poignantly comic scene, a young, gay Asian man ap­proaches Pow­ell to thank him for his role in the gay rights vote in Par­lia­ment.

How­ever, this is also Pow­ell the un­duly cer­tain, pa­tri­cian politi­cian who, in­sist­ing upon the sep­a­ra­tion of his Bri­tish na­tion­al­ism from racial supremacism, made the most dan­ger­ous speech on im­mi­gra­tion to af­flict Bri­tish pol­i­tics in the se­cond half of the 20th cen­tury. To rep­re­sent these per­sonal and po­lit­i­cal con­tra­dic­tions, both when Pow­ell was at the height of his pow­ers and in his twi­light years, is an ex­tremely de­mand­ing task. McDiarmid achieves it with a shud­der­ing sense of truth.

There has only ever been a grain a truth in Tony Roper’s pop­u­lar com­edy The

Steamie. Cur­rently on its 30th an­niver­sary tour, this shame­lessly nostal­gic play in­vites us to once again don the rose-tinted specs and have a gan­der at a Glaswe­gian com­mu­nal wash­house circa 1949. It’s New Year’s Eve and old Mrs Culfeath­ers is still “takin’ in a washin’, at her age!” Protes­tant Dolly asks prob­ing ques­tions of Catholic Margrit, as if the lat­ter is a re­li­gious scholar, rather than a work­ing­class woman with an al­co­holic hus­band.

Young Doreen, her head in a whirl of Amer­i­can movie stars and post-war op­ti­mism, dreams of a pala­tial home, with front and back doors, in Drum­chapel. Mean­while, wash­house man­ager Andy is well lu­bri­cated, hav­ing taken more than a tip­ple from the Hog­manay bot­tles the women have se­creted among the dirty wash­ing. This pro­duc­tion, which is di­rected by Roper him­self, de­liv­ers The Steamie, the full Steamie and noth­ing but The Steamie. Kenny Miller’s beau­ti­fully de­tailed set is the quin­tes­sence of nos­tal­gia, while the cast (which in­cludes Car­men Pier­ac­cini and Steven McNi­coll on fine form) is un­ques­tion­ably up to the mark.

The play’s the thing, how­ever, and Roper’s (with songs by David An­der­son) is so sen­ti­men­tally sac­cha­rine that it seems to have been chis­elled from a pil­lar of sugar. More a col­lec­tion of mu­sic hall skits than a well-made-play, it had the Kirk­caldy au­di­ence laugh­ing in ad­vance of (its great­est comedic hit) the “Gal­loway’s mince” story. Such is the af­fec­tion the play has ac­cu­mu­lated over the last three decades that to say one doesn’t like it is equiv­a­lent to break­ing wind in church. I beg your par­don, there­fore, be­cause sit­ting in an ador­ing au­di­ence for The Steamie makes me feel like I’ve turned up at a Star Trek con­ven­tion in a Chew­bacca cos­tume.

For tour dates for The Steamie, visit: thesteamieplay.com

Ian McDiarmid gives a nu­anced per­for­mance as Enoch Pow­ell in What Shad­ows

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