The Whip Hand – The DOOR, Birmingham REP

Writer: Douglas Maxwell

Director: Tessa Walker

Reviewer: John Kennedy

See y’man, Dougie? He has a moral imperative to right some historical wrongs and he has his presentation all prepared on PowerPoint but that all goes west – as once did the countless slaves, he announces, their family ancestor, millionaire, Saracen Bell, condemned to the sugar plantations.

Jonathan Watson’s, at first amiable, even noble, Dougie, later turns vindictively pugnacious as the consequences of his toxic 50th birthday party surprise unfold. Eventually, ex-wife, the gobby and garrulous Arlene (Louise Ludgate) shuts up enough for him to announce he has inherited £25K through Saracen’s estate and wants to donate it to a charitable foundation as a way of reparation and atonement.

With the gravitas of a Greek tragedy’s vortex of reciprocated revenge and guilt blood-letting (no bromide catharsis tonight) combined with an amphetamine charged homage to Abigail’s Party, all the poisons of the pond are about to hatch out. Fasten your gum-shields, it’s going to be a frightening and wholly violent night. Dougie, it seems, thinks he holds the whip-hand and writer, Douglas Maxwell, is doing his damnable best to convince us likewise.

He tells Arlene’s now husband, Lorenzo (Richard Conion) who veers slightly towards being a louche, lounge lizard oily as his name suggests, that Glasgow, once second only to London in wealth, displays the mark of Cain. ‘Aye’ agrees Lorenzo, ‘they didn’t name Jamaica Street on account of us just liking Reggae!’ And hadn’t she and friends recently been studying ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ at college? OMG – talk about the irony, she pitches in.

The slights, the quips, the inevitable escalating chain-saw to the vulnerable chink in the armour are barbed, poison-chalice drams of momentary comic respite. Grimaced grasps at ironic relief are but momentary – there’s always the next barrage of puss-spewn revenge agenda to be addressed. Arlene becomes increasingly feral in her self-defensive abuse, dragging up the past and worse, most powerfully when she realises that Dougie wants to re-appropriate their daughter Molly’s (Joanne Thomson) university funds – coincidentally £25K. The legacy her grandfather left her? We begin to see where Dougie is coming from. Has he concocted this as a scam with family (ambiguously adopted) mixed-race son, Aaron (Michael Abubakar)? Arlene has a serious revelation about his absent father that Dougie really doesn’t want to hear about. It devastates Aaron whose only constant in his short life is being used as a proxy punch-bag for others’ displacement inadequacies.

Plot-shifts develop through rage-driven revelations and guilt-riven confessions. Aaron’s articulate, volatile and accusatory tirade against Molly’s refusal to accept that her slaver-ancestor’s sins rest on her shoulders raises moral conundrums that resonate with festering dissonance where statues and flags even now hold precipitate incendiary associations.
The violent consequence of the climactic explosion of primal destruction wrought by Molly and Aaron in the faux Regency lounge of Arlene and Lorenzo, is aptly timed to follow Arlene’s revelation that they are tottering on a mountain of debt. Its presenting Dougie with an opportunity to blackmail Arlene suggests an ambivalence of conclusion that only part convinces: if not actually contrived then wrapping-up convenient. Dougie’s parting sneer only exacerbates his nihilism. Indeed – he still cracks the whip hand. With family like these spilling their guts out – who needs enemas?

What is certain is that the script hare-scorches along, crackling with robust vernacular and fissile humour. The cast’s characterisation under director Tessa Walker’s galloping-paced dynamic never fails to utterly convince. But what of Molly, do the sins of the ancestral Fathers’ ghosts still fall on the daughters? Simmering in the subtext, is Maxwell whipping-up a wasps’-nest of inchoate post-colonial denial where Brexit collective amnesia aptly parallels Dougie’s deceit? It does nothing to dissipate its potency for being hypothetical. Compulsive, breath-stealing unstoppable.

Runs until 16 September 2017 | Image: David Monteith-Hodge

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Compulsive, breath-stealing unstoppable

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The Reviews Hub - Central

The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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