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Theatre Review Too much information

GORDON PARSONS sees a worthy drama on the abolition of the slave trade bogged down in its historical context

The Whip
The Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

ADDICTS recently hooked on the BBC Parliament programme’s Brexit shenanigans will feel at home with Juliet Gilkes Romero’s new play dealing with an equally drawn-out battle – the early 18th-century dispute over the abolition of the slave trade, another critical point of change in Britain’s history.

True, with the contending forces of Whigs versus Tories consisting of three on each side of the gangway, the fierce debates lose something of their drama and, as always, the politics bed down into questions of economics.

With sugar declining in its profitability is it not time to free the 80,000 slaves on the plantations of the West Indian colonies? If so, should the slave owners be compensated at the expense of bankrupting the country?

Inevitably, the play has to carry a heavy load of background information and consequently the dialogue suffers.

Alexander Boyd as Whig chief whip has the task of “getting abolition done” – a familiar imperative – while for the opposition Cornelis Hyde Villiers, a kind of articulate Boris Johnson-type blusterer, is determined to squeeze every sovereign out of the Treasury coffers for himself and his fellow slave owners.

Boyd, played with increasingly desperate frustration by Richard Clothier, is beset by Mercy Pryce, an erstwhile slave and freedom campaigner and his housekeeper, Horatia Poskitt, an ex-northern mill worker.

The latter is determined to seek justice for her daughter, one of the many child victims of a new slavery marking the empire’s move from mercantile to industrial capitalist exploitation.

The conflicting strands are well served by a strong cast, notably David Birrell as home secretary – a master of climbing the greasy pole of political ambition at any expense – and Corey Montague-Sholay as Edmund, Boyd’s black slave and ward who clings to the vain hope of becoming a “gentleman.”

Yet, apart from occasional sparks, the play is too busy capturing historical detail to catch dramatic fire and it’s a problem that Kimberly Sykes’s worthy production struggles with throughout.  

Ironically, perhaps, the most telling moment is when the action pauses to communicate the information that the enormous debt incurred to compensate the slave owners was finally cleared only in 2015.

Runs until March 21, box office: rsc.org

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