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Theatre Review: What Shadows ***

Michael Cox reviews a production with 'a masterclass of a performance' by Ian McDiarmid.

What Shadows is well-intentioned theatre. It has a lot that it wants to say and has its heart in the right place. It’s well done, but it’s also too safe to fully achieve any of its political objectives.

The play is actually in two parts, which proves a little problematic.

The first part looks at 1960s England, focusing on racial tensions that seem more egged on by MP Enoch Powell. Powell is presented as a contrarian figure: he seems fine with homosexuality and treasures friendship but clearly sees Britain’s growing immigrant population as a problem. The play gives Powell a few possible justifications, including reports from his own constituents that he feels obliged to represent and possible jealously at losing a political post due to India’s independence. These feelings lead him to rise above his rank and take on the establishment with inflammatory statements.

This is juxtaposed with a storyline set in the 90s that follows two academics researching Powell’s infamous ‘rivers of blood’ speech—both are individuals who have personal connections to the speech and are in search of closure. That closure is designed to arrive when one of the academics goes head-to-head with an older Powell in a battle of wits that ends the play.

Theatre should be a place to examine difficult themes and ideas, and in this modern political era of Brexit and immigration, Powell is certainly fair game. Unfortunately, it feels like playwright Chris Hannan wants to stack the deck—the play seems far more concerned with presenting a likeable multiracial company of characters with comedic flourishes than taking a full throttled look at racism, and the 90s plotline feels like it’s tagged on for the sole reason to allow Hannan’s mouthpiece to verbally spar with Powell—coming across more like wish fulfilment than drama.

Fortunately, the production is well handled. Director Roxana Silbert not only keeps the pace brisk but balances the light and dark moments effectively. Together with her production team, Silbert has created a good-looking production that contains a terrific ensemble performance.

While every actor has at least two moments to stand out, the performance of Ian McDiarmid as Powell is utterly terrific. McDiarmid is asked to do much, and he delivers a full-bodied, three-dimensional performance that radiates every moment he is on stage. It is a masterclass of a performance that is easy to admire.

What Shadows performs at the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh until September 23.

Tags: theatre

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