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Review: What Shadows, at Park Theatre 200

Ian McDiarmid plays Enoch Powell in gripping production that examines the impact of the Wolverhamp­ton MP's infamous 'rivers of blood' speech

06 October, 2017 — By Julie Tomlin

Amelia Donkor as Rose and Ian McDiarmid as Enoch Powell

A FASCINATING drama about the impact of Enoch Powell’s infamous “rivers of blood” speech, What Shadows has at its epicentre the compelling figure of Ian McDiarmid as the Wolverhamp­ton MP. Beset still by grief over the loss of Empire, pompous, sometimes petty and ambitious, McDiarmid’s Powell draws to him all the anger and opprobrium that his 1968 speech in Birmingham engendered, and barely flinches.

Chris Hannan’s play is set in England in 1968 and 1992, and it’s in the elderly Powell’s struggle to control the tremors of Parkinson’s before a meeting with one-time friend Clem Jones (Nicholas Le Prevost) that we see hints of the repression of vulnerability required of such a man of his time.

Directed by Roxana Silbert, with a hauntingly sparse set designed by Ti Green, the play opens with academic Rose Cruickshank (Amelia Donkor) trying to persuade disgraced academic Sofia (played by Joanne Pearce who doubles up as Powell’s wife Pamela) to write a book with her about Powell. Their effort to produce a manual on how to speak to “the enemy” drives the action – and it’s while discussing “shared custody” of Englishness with Cruickshank we see in the now-isolated Powell a glimmer of curiosity and openness to perspectives different to his own.

“I was a storm… There were forces beyond my control and I was one of them,” Powell intimates. In the lives of Cruickshank and childhood neighbours in Wolverhampton we see its force, as well as the complexities of lives lived in the cracks of Powell’s fast-disappearing England: The war widow Grace played by Paula Wilcox (who also plays Clem’s wife Marjorie) – the only white in her street Powell mentioned – ends up married to one of her lodgers, Sultan.

It’s a strong cast, but the characters unfortunately don’t get quite enough time to fully unfold, and the same could be said of its many issues, including Englishness, belonging, true dialogue and the “shadow” sides we would rather others didn’t see.

But at a time when Powell’s views seem less comfortably a relic of the past than they arguably did in 1992, it’s an important – and gripping – play.

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