Power of Sail

Paul Grellong
Menier Chocolate Factory with Daryl Roth
Menier Chocolate Factory, London

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Julian Ovenden (Charles Nichols) and Giles Terera (Baxter) Credit: Manuel Harlan
Julian Ovenden (Charles Nichols) and Tanya Franks (Amy) Credit: Manuel Harlan
Katie Bernstein (Maggie) and Tanya Franks (Amy) Credit: Manuel Harlan

There’s a huge student protest outside the building housing the office of the fictional professor Charles Nichols (Julian Ovenden) at the private Boston University in Paul Grellong’s play Power of Sail.

They are protesting Nichols's invitation to a campus debate of the white nationalist Benjamin Carver, who is also accused of being a Holocaust denier.

That’s not a problem for Nichols, who dismisses the students as children who arrive at class “in their pyjamas clutching a pillow,” and claims he will demonstrate in debate how wrong Carver’s views are.

Other staff, such as Amy the Dean, his staff friend the black academic Baxter (Giles Terera) and the post-doctoral applicant for fellowship Maggie, think he should back down. It's even pointed out to him that Carver’s object is not to win the debate, but to legitimise his appearance alongside respected figures.

Maggie (Katie Bernstein) suggests he meet with a few students in a “safe space”. Amy (Tanya Franks) claims he is simply reacting to a fellow academic's recent success. None of this deters him, and he is soon travelling with white post-doctoral applicant Lucas (Michael Benz) to visit Carver in preparation for the debate. The death of a protester completes the longer first half of the show.

The second half revisits the same time period as the first half, revealing how practically every academic character is doing unethical and illegal things.

Instead of exploring the issue of free speech on campus, the plot becomes a lightweight exposé of the private dishonest activities of people Trump might identify as the liberal elite, who don’t care for democracy or the rights of the individual when they have the power and methods to get their way selfishly.

The dialogue is fast and focused, and the fine cast performs well directed by Dominic Dromgoole, but this rather tame mystery play lacks depth and substance. It also contains improbabilities, including the very mild-mannered FBI agent (Donna Simone Johnson) interviewing Charles, who witnessed the student's death, without asking if he could identify who caused it.

The play will have tempted many with the promise of a drama about the clash of protesters with a plan to give a white nationalist a public platform to speak. Yet the protesters are reduced to making noise outside Charles's office, the white nationalist never makes an appearance and we don’t hear either side's argument. Instead, we get a light liberal poke at other liberals, and that doesn’t make very exciting drama.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna

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