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The Whipping Man review at The Drum, Plymouth – ‘thought-provoking and gripping’

The Whipping Man at Theatre Royal, Plymouth. Photo: Steve Tanner The Whipping Man at Theatre Royal, Plymouth. Photo: Steve Tanner
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The Civil War is over – and now emotional wounds open in its wake. Matthew Lopez’s play is a compelling take on the fallout of a calamity which leaves old scores unsettled and a legacy of injustice. Slaves are freed but that comes at a moral cost.

James Northcote plays wounded Confederate officer Caleb, collapsing into the shell-shattered husk of his family home. The house is occupied by Simon, an emancipated slave left to be the caretaker of the property on behalf of Caleb’s departed parents, and John, a light-fingered fellow former slave scavenging other temporarily abandoned properties for whisky and victuals.

Northcote delivers the pain of a man suffering with a gangrenous bullet hole in his leg with powerful conviction. But Tom Attenborough’s otherwise attentive direction allows his rapid recovery from traumatic amputation to suggest little more than a twisted ankle.

As the elderly Simon, Gary Beadle gives a masterful portrayal of a former slave who, despite being illiterate, is articulate and wise. As the younger former slave John, Sope Dirisu exudes the mischievous, impetuous energy of a youthful chancer.

Raised as Jews by the Jewish family that owned them, Simon and John are determined to celebrate Passover, despite the fact that, since the battle of Petersburg, Caleb has “stopped praying and stopped believing”.

Lopez sets their liberation as a poignant parallel to Hebrew slaves freed from bondage in Egypt. Secrets revealed shift the dynamics of relationships already seismically altered by the newly-legislated abolition of slavery. It is under this new era of liberation and its fallout that Lopez weaves a play simmering with mounting tension.

Francesca Reidy’s set of war-ravaged dereliction and the low, moody lighting of Oliver Fenwick help to enhance the atmosphere in this brooding piece set in tumultuous times.

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Thought-provoking and gripping, if occasionally convoluted, plot propelled by tight direction