BWW Review: WHAT SHADOWS, Park Theatre
Transferring to London after debuting (rather appropriately) in Birmingham last year, Chris Hannan's play is based around Enoch Powell's 1968 "Rivers of blood" speech. Powell's speech famously criticised widespread immigration from the Commonwealth, using an example of a street in Wolverhampton where an elderly woman was the only white resident and could no longer attract lodgers for her spare rooms because of the immigrants in the surrounding houses.
The play converges two main storylines: that of Powell in the build-up to, and the aftermath of, his so-called "Birmingham speech", and Rose Cruickshank's research in 1992 that was partly inspired by her living on that Wolverhampton street cited in Powell's speech. Unsurprisingly it ends with Rose interviewing Powell, and the two plots merge.
Where this play works really well is in its 60s scenes - both those of Powell with his wife and friends, and the few set on the street in Wolverhampton. The new year's eve party is particularly effective, as it brings several different cultures together in Mrs Cruickshank's living room who all seem to get on well on a personal level, but also unafraid of making comments that just wouldn't be acceptable now. It points out the unwelcome truth that there is the potential for prejudice in every race; the language used, as well as the realisation that very little seems to have changed, makes for uncomfortable viewing.
The scenes from 1992, however, somewhat diminish the effect of the rest of the play. Rose comes across as unbearably smug, which doesn't endear you to her cause in any way - even when she uncovers a forgotten memory, it only temporarily makes her see her own fallibility, and she doesn't appear to learn anything from it going into the final scene. If there was a point to be made by this it isn't capitalised on, instead the rather lengthy final scene simply peters out.
Ti Green's set design sees the action played out in front of a bleak backdrop of leafless trees; it's true that the play doesn't need extravagantly detailed backgrounds or huge amounts of props, but that doesn't explain the trees' presence. Chahine Yavroyan creates some wonderfully moody lighting design, however, and Louis Price's video design provides some extra colour - especially the 1960s party, bringing a bit of psychedelia to the stage. GiLes Thomas' sound design also contributes to this, with strains of The Beatles' "Get Back" coming through in some of the scene transitions; interestingly, an early version of the song was a satire of Powell's speech.
What really holds the production together is Ian McDiarmid's central performance as Enoch Powell. It is an incredibly nuanced portrayal; not only does he bear a reasonable resemblance to the man, but he also seems to have completely captured his quirks. I had never heard Powell talk, but I'm told that his accent was rather unusual - even sounding occasionally, and inexplicably, South African. Though it may be lost on some parts of the audience, McDiarmid brings this clever character detail to the table brilliantly. He also manages to be rather funny, as well as unexpectedly moving as Powell is shown to be suffering from Parkinson's disease towards the end of his life.
Perhaps What Shadows tries to do too much, as it feels slightly too long but also unfinished. That said, it is undeniably thought-provoking and the events surrounding the central speech could not be more relevant now if they tried. Ian McDiarmid's excellent performance is worth the ticket price alone.
Picture credit: Mihaela Bodlovic