Theatre Review – What Shadows

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Here is a review of the play ‘What Shadows’ submitted by a local resident. To read more of our reviews by local people click here.


‘WHAT SHADOWS’

Royal Lyceum Theatre, Grindlay Street, Edinburgh.
Cast: members of Birmingham Repertory Theatre & 2 Young Lyceum actors.
Writer: Chris Hannan.
Director: Roxana Silbert.

‘What Shadows’ is a drama about the strange political demagogue Enoch Powell and is a timely reminder of the folly of scare-mongering on complex social problems – in this case immigration. Powell today is an almost forgotten grimacing Bogey-man forever captured on grainy monochrome news footage, fading even in the memories of the older generation who recall only the infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech (Powell never actually used this phrase). ‘What Shadows’ lets us travel back in time to see Powell in the round, what formed his character and beliefs and, at the drama’s core, why he came to make one of the most offensive speeches ever in British politics.

The wonderful cast consists of just seven actors, some playing two roles – from Birmingham Repertory Theatre for which this play was written last year. (Wolverhampton, Powell’s citadel, is part of this great metropolis). In the play Clem Jones is a reasonable and grounded counterbalance to his friend Jack (as Powell was known to friends) whose views he often disagrees with. Jones was a real person – a Quaker who had been a conscientious objector. He and his wife Marjorie (Paula Wilcox) were close friends of the Powells. Jack’s wife Pamela (Joanne Pearce) was Enoch’s long-suffering political secretary.

The drama is formed from two strands – the first is the four real personalities mentioned above who we see interacting in private social life. The second strand contains imaginary characters whose purpose is to lead us into the turmoil which Powell caused in the wider society. These include two sociology academics (Pearce & the radiant Amelia Donkor) researching a book project about ‘Identity’ and racism – other characters include Asian immigrants and the mythical “last white resident in the street”. These performances are entertaining and moving.

We learn that Powell was a brilliant university student, becoming a classics Professor at 25, then an army officer in India in the ’39-45 War. He tells his friends that his dream was to settle there and that Independence for India turned his life upside down – he saw a role for himself as a colonial ruler there! Some of the best scenes show mellow picnics in the country with the Jones couple where the straight-laced politician can unwind and talk about his hopes and dreams as well as his deep love of Nature and the English countryside. He could have done constructive work as a conservationist and advocate for Nature in his political career but his huge ego seems to have attracted him to meddle in controversial issues which made headlines.

The day of the fateful ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech comes – carefully stage-managed to be given to a local Conservative Association on a saturday afternoon (not a public meeting) with advance notes leaked to the Press who scent blood and a big story for the sunday papers. A television crew filmed the event for posterity. The speech is re-enacted in this play to chilling effect by Ian McDiarmid. Powell lost friends including the Jones family, left the Tory Party, eventually the political orphan was adopted by Ian Paisley’s Ulster Unionists, serving as the Member of Parliament for South Down for some years (on my only visit to date to the House of Commons I saw Powell –  now frail and ashen-faced sitting beside Paisley during a long debate on Northern Ireland). I felt sad after seeing this play that such a gifted man could get things so wrong and give comfort to racists even today long after his demise.

Ironically it is the same Ulster Unionist party which now keeps Mrs May’s leaky ship afloat!

G.Hendry / September 2017.


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