The Whip Hand

Douglas Maxwell
National Theatre of Scotland
Traverse Theatre

Louise Ludgate and Richard Conlon Credit: David Monteith-Hodge

It seems hard to believe that one could criticise the sincerity and authenticity of a play about the inequity of entitlement and horrors of the slave trade. There is no question that these are important issues and some of the arguments debated in this 90-minute sitcom are worthy.

However, in order to get there, Douglas Maxwell requires his audience to suspend disbelief on a regular basis, starting with the play’s initial premise.

This is that Jonathan Watson’s Dougie, celebrating his 50th with a confusingly extended family, is about to make reparations to a dubious charity for the crimes of a distant relative a couple of centuries before.

Ignoring the question of whether this might be a scam (and everyone does), there are too many leaps of faith required. For example, why are no other relatives expected to offer compensation or, if you prefer, why hasn’t Dougie, as the last of the line, inherited what would now be billions in family wealth, admittedly tainted by slavery.

What remains is fiery family warfare that ramps up to nuclear level, with all rounding on each of the others, almost in turn.

On the plus side, Louise Ludgate as Arlene, a vicious but direct mother/ex-wife, is truly terrifying when she gets into top gear. Some of the set-piece speeches attacking slavery and inequity today are also powerful and worthy.

It would be great to love the Traverse’s biggest staging in the opening foray but, despite its good intentions, the result is too far from the mark.

This production plays at Birmingham Repertory Theatre from 5-16 September.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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