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REVIEW: The Whip, Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

Kimberley Sykes latest work at the RSC is a riveting collaboration with former BBC journalist and playwright Juliet Gilkes Romero about the hidden scandal of the £20 billion loan to compensate British slave-owners.

An actor in Victorian costume standing in front of a flag speaking out

“I am daring to exert my own opinion, as men do” – Debbie Korley as Mercy Pryce, runaway slave and abolitionist, The Whip. Production by Steve Tanner

After three years of fraught political debate over Brexit you may not fancy spending your evening watching an 19th Century period drama set partly in the House of Commons. But The Whip, in the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, is an absorbing, impeccably researched new play unravelling the truth behind the 1833 Slavery Abolition Bill and the role of women within the anti-slavery movement.

A female actor with her hands raised in the air on stage

Debbie Korley as Mercy

Playwright Julie Gilkes Romero, a descendent of the transatlantic slave trade, brings to life untold human stories from British history that have laid buried for more than 180 years after spending hours painstakingly trawling through verbatim Hansard reports of parliamentary debates and Select Committee Reports from the era.

Four actors dressed as Victorian politicians sitting in a row

She delves deep into the murky but gripping machinations of Victorian Westminster politics and corruption to uncover what really happened when the liberation of 800,000 British colonial slaves was agreed – and has been glossed over ever since…

Actor in Victorian costume reading a newspaper

This three-hour long drama (with a 20-minute interval) revolves around four central characters whose lives intertwine with politician Alexander Boyd, the Whig Party Chief Whip. Ex-cotton mill worker Horatia Poskitt becomes his housekeeper; eloquent runaway-slave and abolitionist Mercy Pryce is recruited to join his anti-slavery campaign and Edmund is Boyd’s studious ward and ‘unpaid’ parliamentary assistant, also a runaway slave.

Boyd is ‘the whip’ referred to in the play’s title – instructed by Home Secretary Lord Maybourne to abandon his bill to end child labour in factories and drum up support for the Slavery Abolition Bill – “to get Abolition done”. Sound familiar?

A female actor getting dressed into a Victorian gown

Debbie Korley as Mercy Pryce

The casting is superb – with some enigmatic, powerful and touching performances. Debbie Korley excels as Mercy – her lucid , eloquent descriptions of slavery hit hard. Her character is based on Mary Prince, a former slave from Bermuda, who became the first black woman in Britain to present an anti-slavery petition in Parliament, and to write a memoir; while Corey Montague-Sholay’s character, Edmund is inspired by Nigerian ex-slave and abolitionist Olaudah Equiano – his memoir The Interesting Life of Olaudah Equiano became a best-seller.

An actor holding a note in his hand

Corey Montague-Sholay as Edmund

Katherine Pearce’s Horatia, whose only daughter died in an horrific mill accident, imbues the spirit of early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft with a keen wit. In her we see the emergence of women’s suffrage – inspired by Mercy she finds her voice on a soap box at Hyde Park’s Speaker’s Corner. “I have been quiet all my life because of my lack of man parts,” she quips.

An actor dressed as a Victorian maid talking to her employer with ensemble in background

Katherine Pearce’s Horatia Poskitt

Ciaran Bagnall’s pared down set see the stage framed by wooden pillars intermittently lit up by neon strips. It feels like you’re looking at a ship – a reminder of the perilous journey taken men, women and children taken from African shores and sold into slavery. An ensemble cast of four supporting actors, all dressed in sepia brown, act as Victorian rabble-rousers, reporters, onlookers and servants.

An actor holding a briefcase in one hand and other hand up in air

Alexander Boyd and ensemble

Richard Clothier’s Boyd cuts an elegant yet arrogant figure, a principled but fundamentally flawed man won over by ambition and the promise of promotion.  It’s his conscience that’s tested as the play explores the “morality of debt”. How much is a man, woman or child worth, Boyd asks greedy slave-owning MP Cornelius Hyde Villiers.

An actor on stage in Victorian coat

David Birrell plays Lord Maybourne

Ultimately Boyd sells out. Living miles away and with other pressing socio-economic issues, riots and revolution closer to home to deal he agrees to a £20billion compensation bail-out adding to the wealth of British slave owners. Slaves must continue to work seven years for free under “forced apprenticeships”. Tellingly, the decision does not sit well with him.

As Mercy concludes “These are 800,000 souls, not bargaining chips to be used and abused.”

Actor in blue Victorian dress coat and glasses looking at a woman opposite him

Corey Montague-Sholay’s Edmund

The Whip tackles a huge range of social, political and historical issues – race and sex inequality, slavery, child labour, working class unrest and ironically, “great British democracy” where “compromise is the way forward”. Hmm, I wonder where we’ve heard that before…

Composer Akintayo Akinbode’s score punctuates the drama perfectly with its melancholic cello and the beat of the African drum….A distant reminder of home for Mercy and Edmund, both taken away from their families as young children. “I remember nothing but my mother singing,” says Edmund as he attempts to sing a song in his native tongue – this, for me, is one of the most affecting moments.

The Whip is an enthralling play uncovering the shocking hidden truth of Britain’s slavery history that should be widely watched.

The Whip runs in the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, until March 21. Running time is three hours including a 20-minute interval.  

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