Writer: Gabriel Bisset-Smith
Director: Charlotte Bennett
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
It’s rare that a play teems with so many ideas while still managing to remain coherent, but Whitewash is that rare play. There might be those who say that writer Gabriel Bisset-Smith has packed too many issues into his 70 minutes, but we are not one-dimensional beings with a single narrative: instead, we are multifaceted, our identity overlapped by race, gender, sexuality, class and geography. The people in this play feel real, and so does the London that beats feverishly at its heart.
In this electric two-hander based on his own life, Bisset-Smith also acts, playing Lysander the white son of a mixed-race woman Mary. The first scene set in Camden in 1989 where a policeman is suspicious of a woman of colour pulling along a white child is gripping, and as taut as Lysander and Mary’s linked hands. It’s also very funny too.
The chronology of Whitewash is fragmented with flashbacks and flash-forwards keeping the audience on its toes. However, this isn’t only Lysander’s story, but the story of a working-class community in King’s Cross, threatened by gentrification. It’s also an examination of the idea of home in broader contexts, too, with Mary (a superb Rebekah Murrell) taking her son to Jamaica where the colour of her skin doesn’t set her apart. In the present, Lysander works for an architect’s firm, which struggles to guarantee affordable housing in its renovations of council estates. Post Grenfell, this plays reflects the city as it is now. It’s startlingly current.
As well as the main roles, Bisset-Smith and Murrell play a handful of other characters, crossing genders and ethnicities. All are brilliantly performed. The scene where mother and son find themselves in the same Peckham nightclub, albeit in different decades, acts as the spine of this clever script, with director Charlotte Bennett completely understanding the rhythms of Bisset-Smith’s words.
The staging is in traverse and Jemima Robinson’s set very purposely resembles a trendy art gallery in an edgier part of town, a tell-tale sign of gentrification. Occasionally hanging on the walls are Mary’s paintings, never good enough for the gallery-owner who tells her to ‘weaponsie her blackness.’ In a nice touch the images we see are paintings by Bisset-Smith’s real mother, Jenny Gordon.
Of course, there’s an irony that this play is being shown in Soho, another area being cleaned up and gentrified for a safe middle-class consumer, but Soho Theatre is championing anti-gentrification work, and this week Unpolished Theatre’s Flesh and Bone returns to the theatre. Both plays should be required viewing for every urban dweller.
Runs until 27 July 2019 | Image: contributed