Juliet Gilkes Romero’s troubling new play The Whip dramatises the 1833 Abolition of Slavery Act, and the £10 billion repayments the British government made to slave owners for their ‘loss of property.’
The play plunges into party politics. Chief whip Alexander Boyd (a stately Richard Clothier) is asked to lead the Abolition Bill, abandoning his reform of the cotton mills. He won’t consider it, that is until a promotion is on offer. Unsurprisingly, morals aren’t safe from personal ambition.
Katherine Pearce brings humour and sincerity to the role of the defiant Horatia Poskitt, a Lancashire woman devastated by work in the mills. Debbie Korley has a brilliantly subversive first scene as Mercy Pryce, a Barbadian slave turned abolitionist, who demonstrates that all sides can play the game when it comes to political gain. A spin-off featuring these two women would be interesting.
The question of labour permeates the play. Boyd refuses to pay his ward, former slave Edmund, for his work, while the issue of emotional labour is highlighted in a touching church scene between Mercy and Horatia.
Kimberley Sykes directs an economical production. While the second half sags slightly under its own weight, painstakingly resolving each character’s personal journey, there are some beautiful ensemble scene transitions that draw out the play’s themes. Ciaran Bagnall’s muted lighting adds to the atmosphere.
Gilkes Romero has written a smart and rich play, with a breadth and complexity that leaves the audience thinking deeply about legacy.